HOT TOPIC – JUNE / JULY 2011
This month we are thrilled to welcome back our good friend and international volunteerism commentator Rob Jackson, from the UK, as a guest Hot Topic writer. In this month’s column, Rob shares his thoughts about Australia’s National Volunteer Strategy Consultation, and where he believes we are heading in the right direction, and where we are not. Thanks Rob!
Earlier this year OzVPM owner Andy Fryar shared with me a copy of the report on the Australian National Volunteer Strategy consultation. I found the report an interesting read and filed it away as something to blog on in the coming months. So, when Andy and I spoke about me writing a guest hot topic for OzVPM I dusted down my copy and revisited it in order to share my views on the report’s findings.
Two key themes struck me right away from the executive summary and it these that I want to focus this hot topic on. I’m going to refer to them as the good news and the bad news.
The good news – volunteer management
I have had the pleasure and privilege to work in the volunteering movement since the summer of 1994. In that time there have been too few occasions when I have read any kind of strategic report or position paper on volunteering that has mentioned let alone focused on the importance of volunteer management. So I found it heartening to read these two bullet points from the executive summary of the consultation report:
- “Effective volunteer management helps improve the efficiency of organisations and increases their capacity to comply with and implement risk management strategies.”
- “Volunteer managers and coordinators are important but often unrecognised and inadequately supported. “
We all know that the role of volunteer management, as the report puts it, “often goes unrecognised and is inadequately supported”. That is sadly, a theme across the globe. The Valuing Volunteer Management Skills report by the UK’s Institute for Volunteering Research found support for volunteer management to be similarly weak in places.
So it is heartening to see the report on your own volunteer strategy consultation call for more training of volunteer managers and for much more investment in volunteer management posts in order to overcome what was found to be the second biggest barrier to involving more volunteers, a lack of skilled managers and supervisors of volunteers.
I do worry about where this funding will come from though. I’m cautious about organisations always seeking external funding for their volunteer programme because they can’t afford to fund it themselves. Too often this is a get out – the organisation could fund the volunteer programme, they just choose not to, seeking external funds instead. I’ve written about this topic myself recently because I passionately believe that if organisations fail to invest (their own funds) in volunteering then the future does not look good for them.
The Australian report also quite rightly challenges the volunteer management community to up its game, calling on “managers of volunteers to share information more frequently and collaborate on the development and implementation of organisational standards in order to reduce duplication and related administrative burden.”
Peter Drucker once wrote that “So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work”. This for me helps to sum up why this call is a key issue for volunteer managers, especially in countries where the so called workplace or HR model of volunteer management has become in increasingly common. For in those countries, volunteer management has become more and more process driven. It has become about management, not leadership.
We have to try and balance the process driven side of our work with the essential leadership elements to what we do. We especially have to do this if the increased investment we want to see in our field will bear the fruit people like the authors of this report hope it will.
Because, as John Seeley Brown once wisely commented, “Processes don’t work, people do”.
The bad news – volunteer opportunities
So, its great to see the consultation report recognise the value of volunteer management and leadership. But there is an even bigger challenge it highlights, one that good volunteer management can help to solve but one that many organisations are going to struggle with no matter how expert the person who leads their volunteer programme.
That is the mismatch between what people want from volunteering and what organisations have to offer.
The report states that:
“Increased promotional efforts should be matched by the development of appropriate and diverse opportunities for volunteer participation within volunteer-involving organisations.”
“Volunteer-involving organisations need to accommodate and encourage these emerging trends through the development of suitably flexible opportunities for involvement, while continuing to cater for traditional forms of participation”.
Apparently 86.8% of those surveyed thought that busy lives and competing priorities were the main reason people don’t volunteer, with 35.7% of people feeling that the volunteer opportunities available in Australia aren’t suitable or appealing.
Personally I don’t believe all the time poverty people claim is real. I’m a busy person and I manage to fit a range of volunteering opportunities into my life. I think the bigger problem is the one that links the two statistics together – people think they will be too busy to volunteer because their understanding of what’s available doesn’t fit with their lifestyles. It is a problem of perception.
People today are leading increasingly busy, complex and time pressured lives. As a result they do not thrill to the kind of long term, open ended commitments many organisations still offer potential volunteers, opportunities that are based more on the needs of the organisation than on a balance between what needs doing and what time people have to spare.
I often talk of my friend who volunteered to help at a youth group for a couple of weeks whilst one of the leaders was away yet found himself volunteering there fourteen years later (and that was 8 years ago – he’s still there!) because of the ‘guilt-trip’ retention strategy employed by the organisation. You know the one, it tells the volunteer they couldn’t possibly leave because the whole organisation or service would collapse without them. What kind of sustainable way is that to run a programme?
We have a big challenge ahead of us as leaders of volunteer programmes. As the report states, there is a “need for volunteer involving organisations to be responsive and open to change in order to attract and retain news volunteers”. It highlights the trend towards shorter term, episodic and project based volunteering and the need for more flexibility to accommodate the pressures and opportunities of the modern world.
That means we have to find ways to create new and re-engineer existing opportunities to accommodate the needs, passions and motivations of new generations of volunteers, from baby boomers right down to our youngest volunteers.
But that doesn’t mean everything will be done in five minutes via an iPhone app as the new trend towards microvolunteering might suggest. No, some volunteering will remain long term. But we do need to think seriously about how we adapt what we offer to enable short term volunteering for the long term, maybe through a series of consecutive short term opportunities undertaken over a number of years.
Unfortunately, few resources exist to support such changes in volunteer management practice, despite this being an issue that we’ve seen coming for a number of years. So I hope that the consultation report leads to further work in this area by peak bodies in Australia and that more support becomes available for you to rise to this ‘bad news’ challenge.
For now, if you haven’t seen it already, let me commend to you the new report from Volunteer Canada, “Bridging the Gap” that clearly sets out the kinds of challenges we face and suggests how we might overcome them.
As my previous boss, Justin Davis-Smith (the Chief Executive of Volunteering England) is often quoted as saying, “Volunteering has never had it so good”. If that’s true then it brings great opportunities for volunteer managers to secure the credibility and support many have long aspired to. But it beings many challenges too, challenges that might put us to the test like never before and at a time when the spotlight is firmly upon us.
The early steps towards a national volunteer strategy that are outlined in the report that inspired this hot topic are a great start and one I hope you will build on in future and you rise to the challenges you face.
Rob Jackson is Director of Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd, founder of the UKVPMs email discussion group and an enthusiastic blogger on volunteerism.
- What do you think to Rob’s hot topic?
- Do you have examples of successfully adapting your volunteering offer to the changing availability and interests of today’s volunteers?
- How do you think the national volunteer strategy can help the Australian volunteering movement to tackle these challenges?
- Let us know what you think.
Please share your thoughts
Response posted by Wendy Moore, Volunteer Manager, Brisbane, Queensland on June 25, 2011
To address every aspect of this very in-depth hot topic would require a very detailed and lengthy response. I will focus on one area – Volunteer Opportunities, and leave the other areas for others to address.
I think that there is definitely a need for volunteer managers to have the flexibility in their programs to accommodate episodic volunteers. As you suggest Rob we lead very busy lives and the excuse of “not enough time” probably relates to the perception of the commitment required to volunteer. In the traditional model of volunteering some organisations actually specify a time period of commitment to volunteering; a regular weekly shift over a period of 12 months for example. What if that person is unable to fulfil that time commitment? While it would be great to have that commitment from people, it is not always possible for people to either make or keep that commitment. People are unpredictable and life is unpredictable. Any number of things can impact on a person’s life and their commitment to volunteering; a change in circumstance, loss of a job, gain of a job perhaps in another state or country, commencing study, travel, health issues, either their own or their loved ones, a life changing event such as a death or serious illness in the family prompting a reassessment of priorities. These are all very valid reasons for not being able to commit to a specific timeframe of volunteering.
We, as volunteer managers, need to have the flexibility in our programs to accommodate this emerging trend in volunteering, for to remain rigid in our volunteer program structure may mean the demise of our volunteer programs because they no longer attract as many volunteers. This may be because emerging trends in the way people volunteer no longer match the traditional volunteering model. While altruism may be one aspect of volunteering, many people volunteer for different reasons; for experience for their tertiary study, to gain experience for a job, to practice conversational English skills and for many other reasons. Volunteering needs to fit into study, work, childcare and leisure activities. The structure of our volunteer programs needs to provide a variety of meaningful tasks with flexibility to accommodate changing schedules and volunteering commitments.
A balance of traditional volunteering with episodic volunteering provides stability yet flexibility within its structure.
I have posted a slightly modified version of this article on my blog and on I-Volunteer.
Response posted by Fairlie Crozier, National Volunteer Development Manager, St John, Manuka, ACT on July 19, 2011
Thank you Rob for your valued and highly insightful article. I apologise for being so late in responding! As Wendy rightly pointed out, we could discuss the issues you raised at length for months but I just wanted to comment on your points about the “time poverty people”. I agree with you, and tend to think that the reason for not volunteering is not about being time poor but that the volunteer roles on offer are no longer attractive enough for priority.
Wendy made the point that there are many valid reasons for not volunteering including changes in circumstances, loss of job, gain of job, study, travel, family, loss of loved ones, etc. We often hear about the apparent claim that people are more and more busy. I would argue that none of these things are new. Fifty years ago people still had sudden changes in circumstances, loss of jobs, gain of jobs, study, travel, etc. I believe it is more about the priority that is placed on volunteering that has changed, not the level of “time poverty”.
I wish I had the answers to how to ‘fix’ this issue! I don’t. However, I believe the government could assist in terms of education and promotion of volunteering. If volunteering becomes a ‘natural part of life’ for all of our young Australians, like brushing your teeth or doing your homework then we would have no problem. As Rob said, busy people can fit volunteering in!