HOT TOPIC – August / September 2009
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
I’m lucky enough to meet hundreds of people each year who are responsible for leading volunteers.
More often than not, I am conducting training into what constitutes good practice in the management of volunteer programs, including the need for sound policies and procedures, the creation and monitoring of volunteer boundaries and the implementation for robust selection, training and screening procedures.
Sadly two common denominators are often present.
The first of those relates to the fact that many people – even those who have led volunteer programs for many years, have given little or no thought to who or what defines a volunteer. That is, volunteers are only understood and defined by those people already contributing their time and energy to their particular agency.
I don’t believe that this occurs for any reason other than the fact that most people view the world through their own particular set of circumstances. As the famous quote from Anais Nin states, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”
Of itself, having a narrow focus is not necessarily a bad thing, and for many people working in the sector, there is apparently little to be gained by stretching themselves to view their work from differing perspectives. The danger of course is that by only understanding work by the conditions which surround your agency, you can very easily be led into a state of complacency, where you fail to challenge (or identify) bad habits and assume that the status quo is sufficient.
The second common denominator I encounter is that ‘glazed over’ look when I start to address issues of risk, liability and the need for sound volunteer management practices. More often than once I have been told by volunteers and volunteer managers alike that all of those things are all a little bit too formal for my volunteer program!
The point I am wanting to make is this. I believe very strongly that having an understanding of volunteering which is based on a context broader than just your own program and an appreciation of the basics of good volunteer management can lead those of us leading volunteers to better understand the impact of the work we do.
And here’s the crux of this hot topic – what we do matters!
Not only does it matter to the bottom line of our agencies, it matters also to our volunteers, to their families and the broader cross section of those we come into contact with.
We all need to be vigilant about every aspect of the work that we undertake. In the same way that learning to drive does not make you a good driver, simply understanding volunteer management strategies does not make you a good coordinator.
When we fail to grasp the importance of sound practice, or fall into the trap of management by complacency , we open our programs, our volunteers and ourselves up to unnecessary risk and we can easily fall into robotic management practices which disregard the very essential fact that at the end of the day, we are dealing with people.
This issue has again been raised recently in the OzVPM newsgroup with questions about the age at which we should no longer allow older volunteers to work with our programs. What is the likely impact for these senior volunteers if we simply ‘sack’ them at a pre-disposed age? Many of these volunteers will have spent decades with our programs and have their entire identity tied up in their volunteering.
How do you go about advising a potential new volunteer that their application was unsuccessful? With sensitivity and suggestions about other routes or via a standard letter generated from the depths of your computer? Do you give consideration to how this news might be received by the person being rejected?
When a volunteer inadvertently oversteps a boundary do you respond with a scolding rebuke or a gentle reminder about the need to stay within established guidelines?
I am reminded of a volunteer manager I once met overseas who told me the story of how he rejected a volunteer’s application, only to have the person go away and suicide. It was a glaring example of the need for us to remember the personal side of the work we do and the way we deliver such messages.
In another story I heard recently – I was told of a volunteer had overstepped a boundary guideline and given his home address to a mental health client, who went off his medication, had an episode and decided to visit the volunteer – with dire consequences.
Volunteer management is not easy.
Let me say that again!
Volunteer management is NOT EASY – but it is rewarding, and it is life changing and when done well it can achieve amazing results.
So this month I thought I’d simply allow a space for readers to share their own stories about examples where volunteers have been severely empowered or cut down by the decisions they have made.
Sharing these types of stories offers opportunities for us all to learn from one another and to build on the experiences which we can share
So let’s hear your thoughts
Response posted on August 11 by Wendy Moore, Volunteer Coordinator, Brisbane, Australia
I agree with you Andy that it is necessary to have appropriate systems in place right from the start. Best practice policies and procedures are essential for managing volunteers no matter what size the organization. However unless the volunteer manager or coordinator running the program has genuine compassion for people and is an excellent communicator, no amount of policy would make a difference when it came to keeping volunteers engaged.
The volunteer organizations should ensure that when they appoint a volunteer manager or coordinator that through asking the right probing questions during the interview process they can determine whether the applicant has a genuine care and concern for people in addition to meeting the criteria in relation to knowledge of policy and procedure.
“So this month I thought I’d simply allow a space for readers to share their own stories about examples where volunteers have been severely empowered or cut down by the decisions they have made.” I would hope that no volunteer manager or coordinator would be able to give an example of a volunteer being cut down by the decisions they have made. Managing volunteers is a people business . We as volunteer managers and coordinators deal with people on a daily basis. At times this in itself can be extremely challenging to maintain a happy, welcoming, demeanor when there may be a backlog of paperwork and deadlines to meet and a volunteer who just wants to sit and have a chat. People must always come first. Volunteers must feel valued and appreciated and listened to or they will leave
One of the reasons that we have a good retention of volunteers in our organization is that they feel valued and appreciated. Every day our volunteers are greeted with warm welcomes and genuine gratitude for their time which they freely give. At the end of their shift volunteers are farewelled with genuine thank you’s and appreciation for their being there.
“How do you go about advising a potential new volunteer that their application was unsuccessful? With sensitivity and suggestions about other routes or via a standard letter generated from the depths of your computer? Do you give consideration to how this news might be received by the person being rejected ?” Yes we do have a standard letter that thanks the applicant for applying and suggests that while we may not be able to match their skills to our program there may be another volunteering organization which may be able to better utilize their particular skills. The organization to which they are referred has a database of volunteering organizations with a diverse range of skills.
While every effort is made to ensure that any correspondence to an unsuccessful applicant is handled with sensitivity, it is totally unrealistic to place additional pressure on the volunteer manager or coordinator to be held responsible for the feelings of the unsuccessful applicant. People are responsible for their own feelings. Volunteer managers and coordinators are under enough pressure in this, at times, emotionally draining role, without the added burden of feeling responsible for dire consequences which would have by no means been solely the result of this “rejection” but possibly the result of underlying dark personal despair which may have been prevalent for years.
I recently heard of one volunteer manager who had the experience of having an ex-criminal come in for an interview for a volunteer position. The applicant disclosed the fact that he had a criminal record during the interview. This put the volunteer manager in a very difficult situation. The applicant realized that this would probably mean that he was unsuitable for the particular volunteer role which involved working with people. Fortunately the volunteer manager had enough sensitivity to thank the applicant for his honesty and enquire as to whether he had some other volunteering options he could explore, which he did.
“When a volunteer inadvertently oversteps a boundary do you respond with a scolding rebuke or a gentle reminder about the need to stay within established guidelines?” A gentle reminder is always far better than a rebuke. Ensuring that “volunteering do’s and don’t’s” are brought to the applicant’s attention at the time of interview is one way to ensure that the guidelines are set out from the start before the volunteer even commences. If guidelines are overstepped by more than one volunteer then that may be an indication that it is time for a reminder about procedure at a volunteer team meeting. A reminder about procedure may also be displayed in a prominent position within the volunteer office.
I agree with you Andy. Volunteer management is NOT EASY – but it is rewarding, and it is life changing and when done well it can achieve amazing results. I would never have believed that a career could have such a profound effect on a person. Yes it is life changing. I know that I have grown as a person and have learnt so much about managing people and broadening my perspective particularly from my mentor who is such a passionate advocate for the volunteer management sector. I have also been very humbled by the many inspiring life stories that I have heard from our volunteers who come from so many different backgrounds and who have done so many different things in their lives. They are truly amazing and it is an absolute privilege working with them.
I would encourage anyone involved in the management of volunteers to broaden their perspectives by participating in on-line forums, attending conferences and retreats and networking with other volunteer managers and coordinators we can all benefit from each other’s experiences in volunteer management as well as feel supported by our industry peers and mentors.
Response posted on August 5 by Andy Fryar, OzVPM
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this very sensitive matter DJ, and yes you are right, I would certainly not want to strike fear into Volunteer Managers that their rejection of unsuitable volunteers may lead to people self harming. Like you, I believe that there were many other things happening in that individual’s life at the time which led to that action, and not merely the rejection of an application to volunteer. However, I must stress that the volunteer manager who shared the story with me did feel an associated guilt with the action, in spite of understanding it was not their fault
The context in which I used this example (albeit extreme) was simply to remind us that it is easy for us to fall into the trap of robotically ‘processing’ volunteers and that in doing so we can effect a persons self esteem, confidence, job prospects etc etc
I hope that helps put some context around the discussion
Response posted on August 5 by DJ Cronin, Volunteer Program Manager, Brisbane, Australia
While I agree with most of your points in this Hot Topic I do take issue with the following paragraph
“I am reminded of a volunteer manager I once met overseas who told me the story of how he rejected a volunteer’s application, only to have the person go away and suicide. It was a glaring example of the need for us to remember the personal side of the work we do and the way we deliver such messages.”
I do not think this is an appropriate example of poor volunteer management practice. A number of points need to be made here. I make them having had experience of being a crisis telephone counsellor and also of unfortunately losing a friend to suicide in my early life.
From what I can see in this paragraph there is no way of determining whether this suicide was in any way connected to the rejection of the volunteer application. Unless you can further clarify for us, I would imagine that there could be other and numerous contributing factors. How too are we to know that if this application had been accepted that this tragic event would not still have occurred. It’s a big call by the volunteer manager who told you this story and by you to publish the story in the context of this Hot Topic.
I also worry about what type of pressure this could put on volunteer coordinators who may be new to the field or indeed dealing with other personal issues themselves. While I agree that volunteer managers, like managers in other fields need to have good and legitimate reasons in rejecting applicants the fear of a rejection causing one to contemplate suicide should surely not be contemplated here.
For anyone who may need to talk to a counsellor Lifeline can be contacted 24/7 on 131 114
Response posted on August 1 by Clare Doyle, Program Manager, CVS – MS Australia ACT/NSW/VIC
Yes a very interesting topic. I have worked with MS Australia and on the same program for 17 years. A long time in a world where people change positions every few years. The Community Visitors Scheme matches volunteers with isolated residents in Aged Care Homes. I started as a program coordinator and moved onto managing the program after 5 years. Although working part time I decided to keep the coordinating part of the work because, besides being the best part of the job, it keeps me in touch with the volunteers, residents and the community. It gives me an understanding of the issues faced every day ‘in the field’. We have 500 community visitor volunteers across Victoria and NSW and 11 paid part time staff in both metro and regional areas. I agree with the need to run a ‘best practice model’ of service delivery; however this comes at a cost of time with the amount of paper work that is required. CVS is funded by the Department of Health and Ageing and therefore we have the resources to have paid staff working in regional areas like Mildura and Gippsland. Many organizations expect Volunteer coordinators to manage volunteers all over the state from a metropolitan location. 17 years ago I was able to spend a lot more time with my volunteers than I can now, however to run a successful program we must ‘balance’ our time well between the endless paper work and the ‘people stuff’. Hard but very rewarding I agree