The Three Legged Stool

Andy Fryar October 1, 2009 9
The Three Legged Stool


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

I continue to be baffled about the apparent lack of focus and understanding that people exhibit about the importance of volunteer management – and I am not just talking about the general public at large. I am talking about people within volunteerism – those who deal with volunteers, volunteer issues and even volunteer managers on a daily basis.

Sure, the promotion of sound volunteer management practices and growing an awareness of the profession is my hobby horse – and so I am likely to be more tuned into this issue than some – but month after month, year after year, things don’t seem to be changing much at all.

For instance, in the OzVPM Newsgroup over the last month, a number of us have been having our ‘annual’ debate about whether or not International Volunteer Managers Day is an occasion we should be celebrating, and sadly some of the major volunteer involving agencies in this country have chosen not to be involved.

Let me be clear that the point I am making here is not about IVMDay itself. I am all for individuals and groups making up their own mind about what they choose to support, and I personally know of people who are as committed to furthering volunteer management as I am, who don’t actively support IVMDay.

What does continue to baffle me are the arguments which suggest that volunteer management is not worthy of greater attention or public acknowledgement, and that the work of the volunteer is, and always should remain the ‘be-all-and-end-all’ of the sector.

Governments at all levels also play their part in helping to keep volunteer management an invisible profession. For the most part, when grants are made available or where money is put into developing the voluntary sector in other ways, the required outcomes almost always relate simply to getting more people to volunteer – and not to finding ways of keeping people involved in volunteering through more productive and happier volunteering experiences. It’s a bit like finding ways to help fishermen gain a bigger catch without any thoughts about the longer term sustainability of the fishing industry.

In the last week, the details of a new government program aimed at getting highly skilled over 50’s to volunteer was shown to me. Called the Golden Guru’s (yes that’s right!) what was really interesting in the details of this clearly expensive initiative was the fact that to be eligible to be involved, organisations needed to have in place high levels of volunteer management infrastructure. Yet nowhere in the dozens of pages of literature about the program, did the term ‘volunteer management’  appear. Nor were there any funds allocated to the program which allowed organisations  to improve the volunteer management infrastructure of their agency to a point where they may be eligible to take part. Government seems to think that good volunteer management ‘just happens’

I’m sorry, but it doesn’t!

The Sydney Olympics program was not successful only because 50,000 people volunteered. It was successful because each one of those people knew where to be, what to do and how to do it. They had uniforms, rosters and were armed with information to help those attending the games. Get 50,000 people together without good volunteer management leadership and you have chaos.

And while the SOCOG experience is an extreme one, the same is true for agencies of all shapes and sizes.

When I volunteer to help at my son’s football matches, I’m allocated a task, appropriate equipment and told what time to arrive. When new volunteers start at the local hospital they are screened, receive a role description, are trained and policies and procedures are explained to them. Emergency service volunteers are provided with much training to ensure their safety and when they are called upon, they are expertly dispatched to where they will have the most impact.

These are all volunteer management functions and where these things are absent, and due focus not placed on the volunteer management role, volunteering easily fails.

To create good volunteering (in an organisational context) you need three elements to be in place – volunteers, volunteering activity (something meaningful for them to do) and good leadership.

Take away any one of these and you have trouble.

I liken it to a three legged stool

Remove or shorten one of the legs and you either have to be an acrobat – good at balancing – or you need to be propped up by something external to the stool. But where you have three legs of an equal length, a three legged stool is said to be even more sturdy that one with 4 legs.

Hence my continued disbelief about the absence of any real strategies to grow volunteer management that I witness in our region.

While providing basic volunteer management training is important it is not what I am talking about. While hosting volunteer management network meetings is important it is not what I am talking about. While celebrating IVMDay is important, that too is not what I am talking about.

What I am talking about are our national peak bodies and volunteer centre networks getting beyond viewing volunteer managers as simply being the mouthpiece of member agencies or the sources of training income and instead building national collaborative strategies to develop the third leg of the stool.

What I am talking about are governments having the foresight to invest funding into long term volunteer management infrastructure across both Australia and New Zealand – both through increased funding of our volunteer centre network to deliver this service, and also through not duplicating the work of volunteer centres with the creation of their ‘Offices of Volunteering’.

To a degree, this level of strategic planning and collaboration is happening in the UK, why can’t it happen here?

What I am talking about is having the Australasian Association of Volunteer Administrators (AAVA) become more political and make the other key players in our sector more publicly accountable for their actions and decisions.

And what I am talking about is each and every one of us who leads a volunteer program to become an activist for the profession of volunteer management. To look beyond our own patch and demand better for ourselves.

The strength of a three legged stool lies not in the fact that it has three legs – but in the understanding that all three legs carry equal weight. And in my humble opinion, it is high time we started to equal out the balance of the weight that is being borne.

So what do you think?

  • Do you think enough focus is placed on volunteer management as a key tenet of building a stronger volunteer management sector?
  • Do you have other ideas about ways that we might build the focus on volunteer management in our region?
  • Do you agree or disagree with my sentiments?


  1. andyf March 14, 2012 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 8 October by Wendy Moore, Volunteer Coordinator, Brisbane, Australia

    Andy, I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments that volunteer management is at times forgotten about when considering the volunteering sector. I believe that volunteer managers need to appreciate their true value and advocate for their own positions as well as those of their industry peers.

    We live in a world of “the tall poppy syndrome” where it is frowned on to be seen as being ambitious or vocal about issues concerning our careers. There seems to be an attitude of “how nice to be looking after volunteers” from outside and within the volunteering sector. Volunteers are not pets to be looked after – they are people and we as volunteer managers manage people! Would other corporate managers have “looking after staff” on their job specs? Of course not. They would have manage staff which is a more applicable terminology for a professional position. Volunteer Sector peak bodies that purport to encourage and provide support for volunteering need to provide more support to volunteer management.

    Forums, meetings and conferences are all great ways to exchange ideas and learn new concepts to enhance our skill sets as volunteer managers assuming that the participants have an open mind and a willingness to learn and evolve from their experience. While peak bodies provide some of these avenues for professional growth, they need to do more. Peak bodies must be seen to have the backbone and the tenacity to openly and publicly support volunteer management. They need to lobby government at all levels to provide more funding not only for resources for volunteers but for resources for the management of those volunteers.

    Sadly some of the current peak bodies are not actively advocating for volunteer managers. We need more volunteer managers who are enthusiastic about the volunteering sector and volunteer management to come together as a dynamic force and lobby for volunteer management to peak bodies. We also need people within the peak bodies to be open to suggestions and have the willingness to listen to this professional group of managers who are on the ground managing volunteers.

  2. andyf March 14, 2012 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 8 October by DJ Cronin, Volunteer Manager, Brisbane, Australia

    Good food for thought. However I am beginning to wonder if the food will even be digested. I also understand your bafflement.

    In my opinion we are falling down in many areas.

    We are not challenging current leadership

    The vast majority of the sector remain robotic

    Some people simply do not “get Volunteer Management” and some of these are found within the volunteering sector itself!

    We are lacking in visionaries and explorers

    We are not applying “back home” what we are learning at the Retreat as evidenced by the lack of activity on the Not Just 50 Listserv (There are exceptions but it is a small number)

    We do not seem to be sustaining people who feel the big picture of volunteer management merits their commitment. After all we can count on two hands the amount of people who regularly contribute to Volunteer Management forums and to the OzVPM Hot Topic!

    AAVA is struggling to make an impact in terms of raising awareness, getting the sector out of a rut, as well as demonstrating evidence based success on long range planning and visualisation!

    I believe that some form of a Think Tank on the direction of Volunteer Management in Australasia is obviously needed to assist a sector that finds itself in a rut. A think tank could assist our sector move forward by

    Engaging in dialogue on the direction and future of Volunteer Management in Australasia

    Shaping policy on Volunteer Management and to influence policy makers in government and the volunteering sector on matters pertaining to Volunteer Management

    Engaging in advocacy for the Volunteer Management sector by means of research, articles, debate and communication with other stakeholders in the Volunteering Sector

    Functioning independently of Government, Peak bodies for volunteering and professional associations of Volunteer Management

    Commenting and soliciting dialogue and debate with Government, Peak bodies for volunteering and professional associations of Volunteer Management on matters pertaining to Volunteer Management

    Any think tank needs to be a group of influence. To influence effectively the group needs to be able to communicate and articulate effectively. The group needs to engage a myriad of audiences, be good listeners and above all command respect from target audiences.

    People may well look at the above points and argue “well, isn’t this the function of AAVA?”

    My short answer is no.

    Ivan Scheier shared some thought about a Think tank many moons ago and stated that structure, rules and objectives have no place in a Think Tank!

    I would also like to suggest what could be an important viewpoint. We need to get away from the belief that someone’s longevity in Volunteer Management may always be a good thing. Could I suggest that this may be a pertinent lesson for the convenors of the Advanced Retreat – you may have people more far advanced in Volunteer Management after a career of 14 months in the sector than people who have been practitioners for 10 years!

    Finally, it would be great to see individual board members of AAVA respond to this hot topic. It would be wonderful to get a viewpoint on this Hot Topic from Volunteering Australia and New Zealand. It would be refreshing to see dozens of Volunteer Managers giving their own and unique spin on this dialogue.

    I ain’t holding my breath though…………

  3. andyf March 14, 2012 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 12 October by Sue Hine, Wellington, New Zealand

    I raised some cheers for Andy’s outline of the side-lining of volunteer management.

    The ‘invisible profession’ indeed! Except I’ve heard it all before, going back something like 30 years. It is a sorry tune, and I have to ask WHY it keeps on being repeated.

    DJ Cronin has some answers, and suggests a think tank to find real solutions. It certainly needs to be a concerted effort. Wendy refers to the Tall Poppy Syndrome (a condition we know all too well in New Zealand), and also to open minds and a willingness to learn. I wish, I really do.

    A long time ago I worked with a client group on the basis of ‘helping them to help themselves’. Managers of Volunteer Services have shown themselves pretty-well neutered in applying this mantra to their own condition. Then I think of the origins of many organisations in our communities that began as passionate crusades for what they believed as right, to fill a gap in services. Think disability groups, think Women’s Refuge and Rape Crisis. They got themselves up and running off their own bat, and are now respected agencies providing excellent services, for volunteers and their clients.

    People like Andy have been trying for years to get better Volunteer Management practice, and better recognition for the tasks and skills that are needed in the role. Wouldn’t it be good if we could start our own crusade to get due recognition of skills and experience, appropriate training programmes, and to turn ourselves into the profession we really are?

  4. andyf March 14, 2012 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 26 October by Sophia Cole, Volunteer Manager, Brisbane, Australia

    I echo Sue’s sentiment about the familiar ‘sorry tune’, those who know me, would agree, I reflect on this often.

    My frustrations over time has been resurrected by attending retreats and seminars, not eased. This frustration stems from the same issues being raised over and over, with no real outcomes. (I guess this supports DJ’s suggestion to rethink the criteria of years of service, rather than vision and leadership skills for Advance Retreat attendees)

    Like Sue, I also continually ask WHY.

    Andy has hit on a number of views that I have long held myself.

    1. That peak bodies need to shift their focus from training volunteer managers, and start to lobby governments on the industry’s behalf in its entirety. (However, I do speculate that they have been more concerned about biting the hand that feeds them?)

    As paying members of these organisations we need to firstly communicate what we want from them. Secondly, we need to follow this up by holding them accountable and send clear expectations. Why do we allow these organisations to dictate the services they offer members. Surely, if any other service provider did not deliver the service you signed up for, you would unsubscribe?

    Why shouldn’t we have an expectation that peak bodies will represent volunteer managers? Everyone needs support (including volunteers) by undervaluing volunteer management, they undervalue volunteering as a whole.

    2. We need to educate governments when they make decisions that are not in the best interests of the industry. An example of this; the number of times I have listen to QLD VPM’s discuss ‘how they are suppose to meet the governments target of increasing volunteer numbers by 50%’ astounds me. The solution to me, however simplistic, is it can’t be done without resources.

    In a recent network meeting I attended, a key government staffer ever so politely introduced this target and ended, when prompted, ‘of course in these tough economic times the government doesn’t have any funding to assist with any additional resources at the coalface in meeting these targets. They went on to say, the governments HR/Marketing team will be producing some great literature to assist with the implementation???? What a cop out! To which they insisted it was not a cop out but a reality.

    In regards to recognition of the profession, for our team, we recognised long ago we had to start within our own organisation.

    Over the past 5 years we have built a solid working relationship with our CEO, ensured we made the agenda of Board meetings and educated many staff about what we as Volunteer Managers, not just what volunteers, do. We showed them why we are good managers/co-ordinators by benchmarking ourselves, not just telling them we were the best – we are now in a good place.

    How can we change an industry if our own organisations who pay our wages don’t believe the hype. I believe we need to start by looking in our own backyard, only then can we rally this enthusiasm and each organisations support to command the recognition and respect of governments and the greater community. Since taking the time to plan and implement our own change within the organisation we have had very positive outcomes.

    A Director of Volunteer Services was appointed with a focus on developing and maintaining the strategic direction of volunteer services, not just tacked on to an existing Director role. Our staffing resources and budget have grown inline with services (as it should) and we have captured the Boards attention by consistently reporting and requesting policy changes under our consultation. We now feel comfortable that we are being well represented and recognised in the community by the leaders of OUR organisation.

    I do agree with DJ, there does needs to be a collaborative approach, as in any industry, we do need to have direction and common goals. Engaging in dialogue is key to change, and a Think Tank is a great idea, providing it is a group of influence and not facilitating a talkfest to ‘cry me a river’. If VPM’s can bring about change within their own organisations, voice their expectations of peak bodies and hold them accountable. If we start to educate governments that consultation is not only necessary, but the easiest way to assist us in meeting THEIR objectives. Surely any of these things would be a catalyst for change?

    This is the kind of change required to provide sustainable solutions for volunteering into the future. We need to ensure volunteers are continually being provided with better support, better working environments and are continued to be offered rewarding volunteering opportunities by organisations. This is the work of Volunteer Managers that needs to be better valued and recognised to ensure volunteering continues to move forward.

  5. andyf March 14, 2012 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 3 November by Andy Fryar, Director, OzVPM, Australia

    Hi Lynne

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to the Hot Topic. I appreciate any opportunity to enhance the discussion, as I believe it is a really important one that we need to continue to have in this country

    The essence of the Hot Topic was to raise the issue that we need to be more collaborative in our approach to how we build volunteer management infrastructure in this country, and in spite of some of my criticisms, I hope it is clear that I do believe that ultimately a large part of the answer actually lies in our Volunteer Centre network receiving greater funding that is not tied specifically to having to simply get more volunteers through the door – and also in government at all levels, starting to appreciate the valuable resource that we have in our VC network.

    Finally re: IVMDay, there really seems to be some misunderstanding that supporting the day means having to throw some huge event – which is, and never has been the case. Being listed as a supporter of IVMDay is simply one easy way for our VCs, and others, to publicly demonstrate to their members that they support volunteer management / managers. As you say in your response, you deal with these issues every day, but I wonder how your members ever learn about this commitment?

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts

  6. andyf March 14, 2012 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 2 November by Lynne Dalton, CEO, Centre for Volunteering, Sydney, NSW, Australia

    I would like to respond to this month’s “Hot Topic” i.e International Volunteer Managers day

    Firstly your statement.

    “sadly some of the major volunteer involving agencies in this country have chosen not to be involved.”

    From my perspective I am involved in issues around “volunteer management“ every day either from the perspective of volunteers who have been misused and mistreated and then from organisations who need assistance and information around managing, engaging and assisting volunteers into their organisations.

    I for one do not have the resources for special extra celebration of my volunteer managers (which, by the way, includes myself as I directly manage volunteers) who I work with and recognise and encourage all year long – not just on one day. I am already asking my very overstretched staff and volunteers to organise events for National Volunteer Week in May and International Volunteer Day in December. In between we have a round of statewide regional recognition award ceremonies as well as organising a state wide conference.

    Also, 2009 has been the busiest year we have ever had in The Centre and this is on top of less income and more demand for our services. I would assume that other major agencies are suffering the same sense of overload that I am. Choosing not to involve ourselves directly in another “event” does not mean lack of support for volunteer management. It means – too much work, not enough resources and not enough recognition of the important work that we do from those who could resource and support us better (see your 7th paragraph!!).

    So we are not lacking focus and understanding . We are lacking an extra $1 in the bank and about another 20 hours per week to cope with it all.

    Secondly your statement “What does continue to baffle me are the arguments which suggest that volunteer management is not worthy of greater attention or public acknowledgement, and that the work of the volunteer is, and always should remain the ‘be-all-and-end-all’ of the sector”.

    I am not aware of anyone who argues that volunteer management is not worthy of attention or public acknowledgement. I am aware that a lot of organisations make very worthwhile acknowledgements both public and private and those that don’t may have good reason for not being more vocal about what they do. If you can point out any organisation who argues against good volunteer management let me know and I’ll gladly have a word with them. I do acknowledge that there are sometimes poor volunteer management practices but that is a matter which is different to your statement that there are those who argue against good practice.

    Thirdly “What I am talking about are our national peak bodies and volunteer centre networks getting beyond viewing volunteer managers as simply being the mouthpiece of member agencies or the sources of training income and instead building national collaborative strategies to develop the third leg of the stool”.

    Pardon me? This is a fairly outrageous statement that indicates an opinion and not a fact. If you are going to make sweeping statements accusing organisations of behaving in a particular way then you should back it with evidence. You have no idea how my organisation regards volunteer managers nor whether we see volunteer managers as a source of training income. In fact, at The Centre for Volunteering most of our training focuses on Management Committees and Governance which includes convincing management committees of the value of engaging a dedicated Volunteer Manager.

    Fourthly “What I am talking about are governments having the foresight to invest funding into long term volunteer management infrastructure across both Australia and New Zealand”.

    I couldn’t agree more. Every year we try to convince government of the same. But just as you accuse us of having a vested interest, so do they!!!


    So what do you think?

    Do you think enough focus is placed on volunteer management as a key tenet of building a stronger volunteer management sector?

    I think there is a lot of focus – there is not enough resources ( there I go being self interested again!)

    Do you have other ideas about ways that we might build the focus on volunteer management in our region?

    This is why I continually argue for an accreditation process. If organisations cannot indicate (with evidence – not opinion) that they do not have good management practices then they should not have access to volunteers)

    Do you agree or disagree with my sentiments?


    If you want us to jump on your bandwagon then convince me that I am part of the solution – not the cause of the problem.

    Andy, these comments are written to enhance the discussion. I believe that you are probably passionate about volunteer management like all of us. We may just have different methods of dealing with it and different opinions about how it can be fixed.

  7. andyf March 14, 2012 at 10:03 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 4 November by Wendy Walters, Volunteer Coordinator, COTTESLOE, WA

    I read with interest this months Hot Topic, and certainly agree that I have not seen the level of change that I might have liked during my 10 years in the industry.

    Just to let you know what is happening in Australian Red Cross that will show you how even large organisations that utilize vast numbers of volunteers, and who, lets face it, would not exist if not for volunteers, are amongst the people who do not understand the importance of good volunteer management or in fact volunteer management skills at all.

    I had been employed as Coordinator of Volunteer Services (WA) with Australian Red Cross for just over 3 years, when a restructure began in that area nationally. When the National Senior Manager of Volunteers was retrenched and her role and responsibilities were handed over to the HR department – as after all – they do all the staff recruitment etc, so they can certainly do the volunteers, I saw the writing on the wall and jumped over to the role below, one I knew would be valued by the Senior Management in this service.

    After the review, my old position now sits in HR and they are recruiting a HR person to fill that position, I did make enquiries as to whether they are going to look for someone who has experience in volunteer management and not just HR, but couldn’t find out if that was the case or not.

    It was and still is disappointing that after 3 years of loyal service and also I believe a lot of work in making sure that the division was on top of volunteer management, that it was so easy for national management to decide that whilst we had done a good job, it wasn’t really necessary anymore.

    So, as an ‘old’ timer in the industry I encourage all our younger colleagues to stand up and be counted, you do and have done an amazing job and without you a lot of organisations would not function as professionally as they do. Keep up the good work, I am hoping by the time I retire and begin volunteering, we may be seeing some changes in thought. (NB. Wendy no longer works for Australian Red Cross)

  8. andyf March 14, 2012 at 10:02 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 5 November by Susan Chaffey, Churches of Christ (Care), Brisbane, Qld

    Wendy you are not alone.

    My experience with Red Cross in Queensland was no different to yours. I had such high hopes when I accepted the position of Senior Coordinator with them and received a rude awakening. They have now replaced both their senior volunteer coordinator and volunteer coordinator with a HR qualified person.

    But on a more positive note my discussion to leave was the best move I ever made. I am now with an organisation that actually has a budget for National Volunteer Week and for International Volunteer Managers Day.

    Today, International Volunteer Manager’s Day a organisation wide appreciation email has gone out from the Director and I have lost count of the number of thank you emails I have received from staff many of who I have never met. I have just been invited to a morning tea and received flowers from my peers. Gifts have gone out to all our Volunteer Coordinators in the field. SHOCK, this has never happen before in my very long years of working in volunteer management.

    When I commenced with the organisation in January I hoped and prayed that their actions would match their words. I have not been disappointed.

    So yes there are organisations out there that support and recognise their volunteer managers and volunteers but unfortunately we still have many that are operating with their eyes closed ignoring the volunteers (volunteer managers) walking out the door. Sadly no matter how hard you hit your head against the brick wall, how often you speak up at meetings the attitude of the powers to be never change.

    Maybe we need to start promoting best practice organisations… just a thought.

    I left the Gold Coast Volunteer Managers Retreat in March with a feeling that very little has changed since I attended the first one in Canberra.

    The same issues and concerns were being raised, actions were being planned and it sounded great. DJ you commented that very little action has occurred in relation to these plans. I have to be honest and say my priories are with the organisation I work for and building their recognition and support of volunteers. As with many volunteer managers my time is tight and if I have time to read the Hot Topic I am doing well. I often think I must respond to that topic but the meeting with a new service to discuss volunteers gets first preference.

    In my role I do not actually manage a volunteer program, I am a mentor/enabler to over 65 volunteer coordinators working across our services. My days are spend sharing my knowledge and promoting the value and best practice management of volunteers to service and regional managers across South East Queensland.

    The messages I have received today on International Volunteer Managers Day, the greetings I receive after driving 7 hours to St George and Cunnamulla to provide support and training to Volunteer Coordinators, tell me I am making a difference.

    I have a suspicious that is the case with many of us; working in our own way before the scenes quietly pushing the banner. Sometimes it is the quiet achievers that make the difference.

  9. andyf March 14, 2012 at 10:02 pm - Reply

    Response posted on 10 November by Wendy Moore, Volunteer Coordinator, Brisbane, Qld

    IVMD for me provided a unique opportunity to network with my peers within the health sector in a casual atmosphere over lunch. It was a low key, easily organised lunch which allowed volunteer managers and coordinators to come together socially and exchange ideas and learn about each others volunteer programs. In the majority of cases the volunteers from these organisations were not even aware that it was International Volunteer Managers Day. So the day was not about self promotion or wanting accolades and attention from volunteers. It was about providing a rare opportunity to network with peers in the volunteering sector.

    Wow Sue Mentoring!!! What an awesome responsibility that is. I am fortunate enough to have a mentor who has not only guided through the volunteer coordination processes within our organisation but has also encouraged me to look at the bigger picture – the volunteer sector as a whole. He has actively encouraged me to participate in online forums such as Listserv, write responses to OZVPM Hot Topics and attend speakers’ forums and meetings. All have been huge learning opportunities.

    I hope to attend the Australasian Retreat for Volunteer Managers in March 2010 as I feel that this would be “the icing on the cake” in terms of gathering valuable insight into the sector. I would encourage others willing to grow and learn more about the sector to also avail themselves of this opportunity which from all accounts purports to be a life changing experience. See you there.

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