Have we regulated volunteer management beyond recognition?

Andy Fryar February 1, 2006 5
Have we regulated volunteer management beyond recognition?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

As a small child I still remember quite vividly, those occasions when my Mother would take me with her to work at the local hospital, where she was employed as a nursing Sister. I can easily recall the excitement of following her into patient’s room, where she would perch herself at the top of the bed and have a friendly chat with old Mr Jones or Bob, who had been involved in a motor vehicle accident. In no way was that all she did, but the personal touch was, at that time, an integral part of the nurses occupation.

In fact those early memories of the nursing profession of nearly 40 years ago were the main reason I started my professional life seeking to become a theatre nurse; and yes, before you say it, I know I took a radical turn somewhere along the way!

To continue the brief family history for a moment, the turn I did take into the volunteering field came about from witnessing and working closely with another of my family members – in this case my step-mother – in her chosen professional role some 20 years later. In case you haven’t guessed, she worked as a Volunteer Program Manager (I’m second generation!) , and just like my mother and her nursing, I well remember the volunteer management style of the early to mid 1980’s as being a relaxed and casual affair.

Sure there was some paperwork involved, but for the most part it was more about people than processes. Having a coffee with Jill when she arrived at 11.00am, following up with Betty to see how her first day on the job was going or asking Daryl how his new grandchild was. These were some of the most significant and important parts of any day.

Little did I know that in the early 90’s, when I myself became a volunteer manager, that I was about to jump on a giant roller coaster of change!

~ Huge change.

~ Incremental change.

~ Change that would redefine the very essence of our profession.

In Australia, the change I refer to came about as a result of many things – risk management issues, the increased need for more prudent screening procedures, insurance, the threat of litigation, government involvement in the volunteering sector, the development of an established volunteer centre network and our own desire to be seen as a ‘profession’, were just a few of these reasons.

In fact, the roller coaster got faster as volunteering continued to evolve – to the point that many of us are now simply hanging on for dear life as the ride continues to spin around and around in the same horrifying loop! I’m sorry if this sounds bleak, but it is a story I hear over and over again as I move around the sector and I believe it is just one of the reasons we have such a high turnover in this field.

Now before I type another word, let me state quite categorically that I am not in any way opposed to change, and in fact much of what has transpired in volunteer management in Australia over the past 20 years was well overdue. Policy development, more diligent screening practices, tighter training regimes and the implementation of sound risk management strategies were (and continue to be) both needed and necessary.

– However at what point do we need to ask the question of just where will this all end?

– At what juncture do we stop legislating and creating policy and allow commonsense to take its place?

– What is the balance between the more formal management regimes we are expected to implement and the expectations of volunteers, whose motivations to volunteer usually don’t care about such things

– How do we create an environment in which we can refocus on some of the niceties that volunteer managers, like my step-mother, used to experience, while still ensuring a responsible attitude to volunteer safety and well being?

I distinctly remember Linda Graff beginning to ask these types of questions on her last visit to Australia in April 2004, while my December 2003 hot topic tackled a similar vein of thought. Interestingly, I believe these questions are beginning to be posed with more and more frequency by the leading voices in volunteerism internationally as we have started to really appreciate the evolutionary basis of volunteering.

The fact is that unless we occasionally take stock of the path we are on, examine where that is taking us and more importantly ask if it is where we want to go nothing will ever change.

So where does all this lead us?

Well firstly, I think we need to be careful that we are not becoming dinosaurs in the way we think about volunteer management. What we can be sure of is that in the same way that volunteering today is quite different than it was twenty years ago, it will be quite different again in 2010 or 2016. Think about it, even if you are using a 2000 model for volunteering, you’re already six years behind the times!

We need to be developing strategies that allow us to ‘keep up’ with best practice thinking and not have to ‘catch up’ with it. Joining newsgroups or professional associations like AAVA, subscribing to volunteering journals or attending conferences are just a few simple ways of achieving this.

Secondly, let me encourage us all to think for ourselves a little more. There seems to be a tendency for many VPM’s to want to be ‘spoon fed’ the solutions to every problem. The truth is that volunteering is too broad a field to have one set of solutions for every situation. What we need to learn is how to seek our own solutions – that’s what makes us a ‘profession’ – the ability to take a volunteering situation and analyse it for ourselves and on behalf of our organisations.

Next, let’s start to challenge convention a little more. The involvement of government, the creation of community compacts and the increased need to meet legal standards have, in many cases been great for the volunteering sector. There are however plenty of other cases where this involvement has also resulted directly in a complete ‘dog’s breakfast’!

If we keep bending over to comply without ever asking ‘why’ or seeking other alternatives we will continue to head in a direction where our professional lives are consumed by paperwork and a sense of being disenfranchised. We will wind up in a place we never intended to be, and perhaps even one we don’t like at all.

So let’s hear what you think?

~ Have we over regulated volunteering?

~ Is there too much emphasis on the legalities in volunteer management these days?

~ If so, have we lost something in this over regulation?

~ Are the models of good volunteer management practices being taught still relevant?

~ Do we want to regain some of the ground we have lost – and if so, how do we go about it?

Finally, you may also be interested to know that these are some of the questions Linda Graff, Rick Lynch, Martin J Cowling and myself will be asking at the 2006 ‘Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management’.

This year’s event will be held in Brisbane at the end of August and carries the title of “Volunteer Management: have we gone too far?” For more details visit – www.vpmretreat.com.au

We would love to see you there!


  1. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 11:45 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 6th 2006 by Jess Reed, Coordinator, Volunteer Support (Mentoring) Program (VSMP), Inala, Queensland, Australia

    I would like to respond briefly to Manon Ellis Williams – while I can completely see where you are coming from, and how well your model seems to be working for you (and I doubt than any other model in your situation would work as well), in my situation it is through supporting our volunteers, and having all those things in place – training, risk management & assessments, team meetings – that we are able to provide the best results for our program.

    Our volunteers mentor children and young people in the foster care system (in foster homes, residential facilities, hotels, back home with mum/dad). Each volunteer is matched with a young person in the hope of establishing a trusting, long term mentoring relationship. Our program was created in response to the situation where kids are “falling between the cracks” – sometimes being moved from one foster home to the next, with Case Workers often changing, and no real sense of continuity, security or belonging. For these kids, it is so important that we don’t introduce any more change into their lives – we don’t introduce them to someone who is unreliable, or who will “quit on them” after a few short months. Even for the kids that are in stable foster care placements, introducing someone and then taking them away can be very hurtful.

    This is the reason why we do focus so much on supporting our volunteers. It is obvious that an unsupported, unmonitored volunteer is far more likely to resign, burnout or cause damage. Team Meetings give volunteers a chance to access peer support and debrief, as well as plan joint outings. Regular supervision means volunteers feel supported, and realise that the work they do is valued. It gives them a chance to reflect on their experiences and debrief, and we hope it helps them with professional development. It also means that, as the Coordinator, I am aware of any issues that are going on that might threaten the placement, and we can take steps to resolving these.

    Proper screening (as Kate Power mentions), and going through all those checks (and more) is the only way we can feel remotely secure in introducing volunteers to these young people. Proper training helps volunteers be more prepared for their volunteering experience – disclosures, behaviours, etc. Without this our “drop out” rate would be much higher.

    Finally, our regular reviews and evaluations of the program (and its risks) are so important in us finding out how well we are doing our job – whether having mentors is helping these young people, whether they feel valued and whether their wellbeing measures (self esteem, problem solving, etc) are affected. You might see it as unnecessary red tape, but having a dialogue with young people and carers is exactly what you are talking about – finding the tangible results of the job. The “best practice” stuff? It’s just about making sure we can deliver to our clients – the kids themselves.

  2. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 11:44 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 10th 2006 by Rosanna Tarsiero Online Facilitator, Gionnethics, Italy
    I loved your hot topic! It matches the conclusions I ’ve come to from a theoretical perspective

    I think you’re very right … there are too many persons wanting to be spoonfed, given “ best practices ” , and just replicate them, whether they address the issue or not.

  3. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 11:44 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 9th 2006 by Manon Ellis Williams, Johannesburg, South Africa

    It seems to me that it all went wrong as soon as we started to get overexcited about a job called “Volunteer Manager”. Ensuring that people who give their time have a safe and rewarding volunteer experience is important – don’t get me wrong – but too many people have forgotten that the outcome of the volunteer management process is the vital thing, not the process itself. We are expected to have policies all over the place, regular risk assessments, the most thorough support and supervision programme imaginable, but is anyone looking at the results of volunteer involvement quite so closely? There has to be a point to all this volunteer activity. Volunteer managers tend to justify their existence through endless “best practice” models rather than looking at the tangible results of their job – are more and better services being delivered, are beneficiaries happy, did we actually make a difference today? Taking our eye off the ball to check that we have the right safety gear on is resulting in us missing the shot entirely!

    Before everyone throws a hissy fit, let me put what I’m saying into context. I worked in volunteer management in the UK for several years and fully bought-in to the “best practice is all” mantra. Since working in South Africa for the past three years, my thinking has changed. In a situation where basic human needs are not being met by the State – water, sanitation, food – non profit organisations and volunteers step up and simply get on with the job. There is very little fussing about policies and procedures, 6 month volunteer training, weekly supervision meetings etc. – it is just about community members doing what needs to be done. Yes, I am sure that things sometimes go wrong, but that is also true of “regulated” and structured volunteering models in the global north. From what I have witnessed, volunteers do not feel exploited and they are getting something out of the experience – whether it’s a free lunch, a food parcel for their family or something to put on their CV.

    I can’t say that any model is better than another – it is not a question of right and wrong – but I have found it interesting to look at why volunteer management has become such an industry in some countries and whether it is actually useful. I t is perhaps easy to engage in best practice navel-contemplation when the need for delivery of basic services is not so great?

    Right, let the games begin!

  4. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 11:44 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 6th 2006 by Jess Reed, Coordinator, Volunteer Support (Mentoring) Program (VSMP), Inala, Queensland, Australia

    I would have to say that (in my own situation) we have not gone overboard with regulation. Coordinating a volunteer program that operates within the child protection sector means that there are layers and layers of additional red tape for us to wade through, but I think that we have been successful in balancing this with real, human connections with our volunteers.

    Our volunteers not only need Blue Cards, but must also pass Dept of Child Safety (QLD) security checks that go through child protection history, traffic history, criminal history and domestic violence history (going through all government databases). They also need to attend training, and meet core competencies (although, if anyone is struggling to meet these we merely sit with them and go through it together – no one fails!), as well as sit a one hour interview. The checks in particular can be cumbersome (particularly when they were introduced and there was a 5-6 month wait on results!!!!! – there’s now about a 2 week wait), but are so necessary.

    We really value the human connections with our volunteers, and realise that remembering to send a birthday card, ask about a sick child/puppy, or congratulate on graduating uni/tafe is so important to making volunteers feel appreciated, and part of a team. We have team meetings each second month, as well as group days at parks or 10 Pin Bowling alleys, to try and foster the team environment and to encourage peer support and friendship.

    I think we are probably quite lucky in that we have a relatively small program – 32 volunteers and 1 Coordinator – and that our volunteers began with us in 4 different stages – some have been with us for the 3 years we have existed, others for shorter (after we finally got funded!). This means that we have had the time to get to know vols at training, and that veteran volunteers have befriended new volunteers.

    Regulation definitely plays a bit part – volunteers need to fill out logbooks, we need to have supervision fairly regularly, we need to brush up on confidentiality in newsletters and at team meetings, we need to review volunteer placements twice a year (speaking to the young person, carer and volunteer) as well as reviewing the program twice a year. A lot of this has less to do with overregulation of Volunteer Program Management, and more to do with the regulation of the child protection sector (and the conditions of our licensing). One of our biggest problems – not being able to publish (even in our newsletter or in the members area of our website!) photos of our volunteer with their mentors due to confidentiality laws – definitely has nothing to do with VPM, and everything to do with the climate in child protection.

    From a VPM perspective I would LOVE to show these photos, as I can see their value in recognising the work our volunteers do, but this clashes with the regulations of the system we work within.

    From my perspective at least it is VPM that is relatively regulation free!!!!!

  5. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 11:43 am - Reply

    Response posted on February 6th 2006 by Gwenda Lawther, Head of School of Volunteer Management, Sydney, NSW, Australia

    Hi all,

    This is an interesting topic which encompasses a whole range of interconnected issues. I don’t think the volunteer sector has become too regulated, I think the issue is getting it formalised in our minds so that it all becomes as common practice as those HR issues which we are all too familiar with.

    Frequently we are asked to work with organisations in a change process, commonly where people suddenly become responsible for volunteer teams, people with no HR experience or knowledge of the legal issues. I think it’s vital that organisations include the legal processes in both volunteer and staff inductions, so that there are no surprises. Simply making programs proactive rather than reactive could be the key to staff understanding and having the capability to work with volunteer regulatory issues.

    I agree that associations, networking and education are the cogs in the wheel that can facilitate knowledge sharing and strengthen organisations ability to cope with the issues and the forums to be kept up to date with changes. I also think an accreditation model could be the next step!

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