OzVPM HOT TOPIC – APRIL / MAY 2012
After an amazing 30 year career as an international trainer, author, consultant and big thinker in the world of volunteerism, friend and colleague Linda Graff has decided to call it a day and move on to tackle new pursuits.
Linda’s contribution to the field of volunteer management cannot be stated strongly enough, especially in her willingness over the years to tackle some of the questions more easily put into the ‘too hard basket’ by most.
To mark Linda’s retirement we got a scoop! We caught up with Linda for one last interview before she wanders off into the wilds of Canada to fish, paint and enjoy life to the fullest. We are also offering the chance to our visitors (perhaps the last chance) for you to purchase print copies of Linda’s books at vastly reduced prices
OzVPM: Hi Linda, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can you believe it has been six years since we last published an interview with you?
Hey Andy. It seems that everyone is running faster and faster, just to stay in the same place. You’ve been busy travelling the world, running your own business and holding down a job. I don’t know how you do it!
OzVPM: Last time we featured you in a Hot Topic column, you were about to embark on a training tour of Australia. This time however it’s quite a different topic as we understand that you have decided to retire from your work as a volunteer management trainer, author and consultant. Tell us a little about that decision?
I began my work in volunteerism 32 years ago this month when I took on the job of Director of the local volunteer centre here in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. After nearly 10 years there I started my own consulting company which I have been running ever since. In the last fifteen years or so I have spent increasing amounts of time in long-haul travel, including, as you mention, Australia (twice), an extended tour of both islands in New Zealand, and many Asian and European countries, as well as many times around North America. It’s been a wonderful career with fabulous travel and associated vacations along the way, but it’s also been terribly tiring. I knew when I started on the road in my early thirties that there would come a time when that work would become just too tiring. Living out of a suitcase, a different city every day, sometimes for weeks on end. The last time I was in Australia, that tour was part of nine weeks on the road. People who travel for a living talk about waking up in a hotel room in the middle of the night not knowing what city they’re in. That happened to me frequently. But what was really scarey was waking up in my own bed at home and not knowing where I was. That’s when I realized that perhaps enough was enough!
All the time I’ve been travelling, I’ve also been writing (more than a dozen books and monographs related to volunteerism, countless articles and thought-pieces), and running an active consulting business related to volunteer program reviews and risk management. I’ve been clearing out my office in preparation for a move and I was shocked at the number of consulting engagements I’ve had over the years. One forgets in the endless round of day-to-day busyness.
So, while I’ve loved my work and feel very fortunate that it blossomed as it did, I am also very ready to slow right down. I stopped training a little over a year ago, and it’s been bliss not to have to pack suitcases and catch planes and eat hotel food. Soon I will close my consulting business as well and the slowdown process has helped me to adjust to the thought of being out of the field completely.
OzVPM: Well can I say that your retirement will be a huge loss for the sector, as you really have brought so much critical thinking to the sector over the years, particularly in relation to your work around risk management strategies, screening and generally by asking a lot of the ‘hard’ questions so many people would rather stick their heads in the sand and not talk about. Can you tell me a little bit about why you believe it was always so important to get these issues out on the table?
I think there are several things that lead me to the specialties I developed over my career.
Managers of volunteers tend to work in an insular way, concentrating their attentions inside their own programs, inside their own organizations. They typically have neither the time nor the resources to connect with others in their field. Of all of the managers of volunteers in Australia, Andy, what proportion ever get a chance to go to state or national professional development seminars? I think in large part because of the perpetual shortage of resources and attention devoted to volunteer programs, people in the field just don’t connect like other professionals do and they don’t have the opportunity to look beyond their own programs at the wider picture.
On the other hand, I, as an international trainer, have had the good fortune to travel widely, and consult with hundreds of different organizations in a wide range of countries. That has allowed me to identify patterns, and often see emerging trends before most others.
Volunteerism over the last 30 years has changed so much. When I began my career a little over 30 years ago, there were only a handful of managers of volunteers and volunteers were largely confined in most nonprofit organizations to very low level, routine work. They really were mostly in the back rooms stuffing envelopes and such. Now I don’t mean to suggest that that work is not important. On the contrary. Any manager will tell you that those are the most difficult positions to fill these days. But my point is that volunteerism has, in a relatively short period, transitioned into very complex, sophisticated, demanding (and risky) work.
For a wide range of reasons I won’t go into here (see, it’s dangerous to interview a trainer … she’ll launch into a workshop at even the slightest opportunity!), volunteerism has been asked to “step up to the plate”. Volunteers are now performing the “real” work, right alongside paid staff. It is difficult in many programs to know who is paid and who is not. And we are getting better at engaging high level volunteers – the highly skilled, advisers and “pro bono” professionals who help with executive level work in our agencies.
All of these changes have presented special challenges to a poorly resourced field. The only way to manage effectively in such a continuously changing environment is to try to be ahead of the curve, even if only just a bit. I always thought it extremely important to report to the participants in my workshops what I thought I was seeing – the next wave, if you will, of change just on the horizon. I tried as best I could to help managers to see what they couldn’t, and to prepare for what was coming at them in the very near future.
OzVPM: Why the specialty in risk management?
I moved into the field of risk management very early in my consulting career, primarily through an interest in policy development. I could see volunteers being asked to do increasingly risky work and in many cases, in increasingly litigious environments, particularly here in North America, and spreading out from there. We had some very high profile cases of child abuse hit the national media here in Canada years and even decades before that happened in other countries. Nonprofits came under scrutiny and we had to acknowledge that you can’t always trust people you place in positions of trust. That lead organizations to look closely at their screening processes, mistakenly thinking that the way to save children from harm was to just screen out the dangerous candidates. So Canada lead the world, I think I can safely say, in the development of more thorough screening processes, and shortly thereafter when we realized the inherent weaknesses of screening, we moved on to working out other ways of keeping people safe (volunteers and those they work with) and protecting organizations from the potential liability connect with risks.
This area caught my attention, as I said, because of my interest in policy development since policies and procedures are an organization’s best risk management mechanism. And so I pursued these areas and soon developed a specialty in them at a time when almost no one else was paying attention to what was coming at us in terms of both risk and liability exposure.
OzVPM: So what’s been the biggest changes that you’ve witnessed in regards to these issues – and what simply has not changed at all?
Well, I think people are much more risk-aware these days. Unfortunately they tend to be concerned about risks, not because they are worried about the harm that might befall their personnel or client population. Rather, the peak interest in risk and risk management tends to be motivated by a fear of the law suit that might follow an injury or loss. Still, I think it’s a good thing to be more risk-aware, to look out for the safety and well-being of everyone involved. And so I think there is a generalized increase in awareness and due caution around how volunteers are engaged. And I have no doubt that collectively we have prevent harm and tragedy in many places around the world because we have been more diligent in our screening, training, supervision and overall management of volunteer resources.
What hasn’t changed, and I know people have heard me rant on about this many times, is the battle that managers of volunteers must perpetually wage to gain organizational attention and resources. Volunteers are still largely taken for granted, and managers of volunteers are still among the poorest paid and worst recognized professional in the helping and human services systems. Boards and executive staff, funders, politicians, and community leaders still typically think volunteers are both plentiful and disposable, and that they can pretty much self-manage. After all, how hard can it be? They’re just volunteers. It’s unbelievable that these kinds of myths still prevail, but they do. And I suppose of all of my 30+ years of experience in volunteer program management, this is the thing that has changed the least and is most frustrating.
OzVPM: You’ve been lucky enough to spread that message to volunteer involving agencies right around the globe. Are there any specific highlights, memories or achievements which stand out above the rest for you?
It’s interesting, Andy. At this point, many of my memories are of a personal nature. I’ve had so many great experiences in my travels. I remember the outstanding hospitality I received in Hong Kong, the fact that even there, risk issues related to volunteering were very similar to the concerns I heard in other parts of the world, and I remember Elsie, the Agency for Volunteer Service volunteer who spent a whole day with me, taking me to see the “big budda”. I recall a participant – imagine, one individual in the tens of thousands to whom I spoke over so many years – who right in front of me had a huge ah-ha! moment when he realized that the value of volunteering was so much more than the “money we don’t pay” which is all we calculate when we use that silly old wage-replacement approach.
I remember the awe of meeting up with colleague-friends from all over the world at national and international conferences. In particular, I recall being the first trainer to arrive at a large conference, sitting in the lobby with a glass of scotch (can I say that here?), and watching as one after the other entered the hotel … Rick Lynch, Steve McCurley, Andy Fryar, Martin Cowling, Rob Jackson, Jayne Craven … it was as if a giant volunteerism guru magnet had grabbed all of the best in the world and brought them to that very place all at one time. And I was so honoured to be there among them.
I remember Peter Sloan, a seasoned volunteer center director sitting in on a session I did in England a few years back. At the end he came up to tell me it was the most influential session he’d experienced in something like 20+ years in the field.
I remember long conversations with dear friends Mary Merrill and Arlene Schindler about how to modify volunteer program management training for a three-day custom institute in Taiwan. And I’ll never forget the long standing ovation I received from a very gracious audience at my very last workshop last year in Minnesota in the United States.
OzVPM: What about any funny training stories?
I often think of an opening exercise I did in southern New Zealand where one of the risks to volunteers mentioned by participants in my workshop was “penguin bites”! Never heard that before or since. But I also think of New Zealanders as so smart not to have become caught up in the liability paranoia that has swept through so many other countries.
And then there was the presentation just last summer from a US client I’ve been working with for a couple of years. They presented me with a flaming pink boa and a bobble head figurine of the Queen (because I’m Canadian). I think they were happy with the risk management work we’d been doing but the newsletter photographs of that moment were pretty funny.
OzVPM: I know you love fishing, and I’ve even been lucky enough to spend time with you at your cabin in Ontario. Does the future simply hold many more hours of searching for bass and pike, or are there other plans on the horizon?
I think many people just facing retirement will tell you it’s a whole new adventure and I know that to be true. As my household prepares to downsize into a smaller home, allowing us to go north to the cabin with greater ease, I’ve watched my files be carted away and my office space open up to vast empty places where overflowing bookshelves had been. One would think it would be a sad or troubling time, but in truth, it feels like freedom. I guess I’m ready. That’s the advantage of working for yourself. This is the right time for me and I am ready to move on to new things. I used to own a small woodworking company and I might go back to some of that. I love photography and Ontario’s Georgian Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world (truly – Google it!) so I look forward to the opportunity to dabble in that direction. And I love water colour painting. I have zero talent but I can start a painting and not look up for four hours and in the interim my blood pressure has lowered and my heart rate has slowed, and I’ve become a nicer person. I’ll trade that any day for hectic and unreliable air travel, bad food, and on-the-road loneliness any day! I had a great run, Andy. I came in just at the time that volunteerism was beginning to boom, I had a rewarding career during the good times, and I am now wandering away to other things as, sadly, it seems volunteerism is riding the down side of its peak time.
I don’t know about Australia as I haven’t been there for several years, but it seems to me, admittedly from a bit of a distance now, that the field of volunteer program management has lost ground. I think that’s true here in Canada, in the US and in the UK. There are fewer organizations promoting professional standards and development, I see manager positions being cut in the endless search to reduce financial bottom lines, and I still see organizations asking for volunteers to do even more while providing no more support.
OzVPM: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Thank you hardly seems enough of a tribute for all of your contributions and I am sure that I am not alone in wishing you a long and happy retirement.
Readers are encouraged to leave a comment below about their own memories or experiences in having attended one of Linda’s workshops over the years or lessons you may have learned through reading one of her many publications.
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