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