Sunday, November 4, 2018

Volunteer Leadership - Time To Change The Tune!

As another International Volunteer Managers Day dawns I reflect on its theme which is “Time for change”.

I say that dramatic change is needed right now or our sector will not be relevant or even exist within ten years.

We have been staring at our naval for far too long and while the world is changing around us dramatically and scarily we are having the same old conversations and doing the same old thing we have been doing for eons.

History will record the present era as one of enormous upheaval and change. Let there be no doubt about that. Democracy itself is under threat. The middle class is disappearing and the 1% has more wealth and power than ever before. Scientists are pulling their hair out as governments around the globe ignore the real threat of climate change. People are on the move in their millions, displaced by war, hunger, terror and collapsing economies. Around the globe extreme right wing actors are emboldened with a louder voice.

But what has that to do with volunteering and with those that lead them? It has everything to do with us. Because the modern and future volunteer is an activist for the globe. If there is no leadership on the issues that matter to the people then people will take matters into their own hands. They will not only be volunteering for causes that they hold dear. They will be volunteering for the very future of their planet and for the future of their children and grandchildren.

The way they volunteer, where they volunteer and how they volunteer is changing. Yes, the traditional mode of volunteering and some traditional volunteer roles will remain. But I predict a tsunami of activist volunteering and organisations in the next five years.

If we don’t change and change soon our roles will be inconsequential.

Citizens in our communities want to disrupt. Are we ready to be disrupt leaders?

Citizens want to be agile and flexible - are we agile and flexible enough to go with them? 

Citizens want to take action now on the cause they believe in. If we stifle their ambition with too much paperwork and bureaucracy they will walk away from us and do it anyway. They will baulk at traditional on boarding methods of volunteering. And they will demand to see the impact of their volunteering. They will also want more of a say in how their movement or organisation operates. They will reject hierarchy. Not for them the bottom rung of the organisational chart! They will lead and cast aside tired leadership methods, soundbites and ways of doing things. They will not tolerate any lack of diversity. They will not tolerate anyone thinking “young people don’t stick around”. They won’t be there for you every Tuesday at 9am and in fact will be there when they are ready to be there. They may not accept the title “Volunteer” and will run if you call them a Vollie. They won’t be patronised and they will tell you to stuff your four hour orientation program! They will demand you utilise the best technology available and they will not be silenced on social media. 

We need to lead volunteers now for social justice and action. We need to lead volunteers now to save our environment. We need to lead volunteers to take action on homelessness. We need to lead volunteers who want to change our political discourse. We need to lead volunteers who want compassionate action for refugees. We need to lead volunteers who have the ideas that will make our globe a better place to live in. We need to embrace virtual volunteering. And if we are to remain relevant in our leadership they will demand that we earn their respect by being a voice for action and by having the skills to mobilise people and effect real change.

We may have to throw out most things we think we know about volunteer management. The theme for this year’s International Volunteer Managers Day is apt. Change is bulldozing its way through history. We either go with it or get out of the way.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Community: From the streets of London

Recently I had the honour spending the day with a Homelessness Service on the Gold Coast. We spent the day doing a vegetable and flower garden makeover, preparing and cooking some yummy dishes, serving the residents at lunch and doing a major cleanout of some cupboards! We also met and spent some time with the residents and staff who inspired us with their resilience and dedication. Getting away from our busy CBD office for the day and witnessing one of our services on the frontline was a very fulfilling experience. It brought home to us how we are all linked in providing these vital services to our community. It is compassion, humanity and service in action and we all have our unique part to play.
For me it was a uniquely personal experience. This was the second time within a yearI had worked with a homeless service.

Both experiences stirred a long distant memory. Long distant but never forgotten. Allow me to tell you the story.
It was a smile that opened the floodgates. She continued to smile at me but a look of concern began to sprout on her face. I looked away. I was wet, and cold, and scared. I was alone amongst 8.8 million people in a strange city and this lady’s kind smile had made me cry on the Tube. I was far from the babbling brooks and caressing countryside of Ireland but events taking place would shape my future.

“Shhhh. Listen..” My dad had stopped in his tracks with a hand in the air to indicate that attention must be paid. It was three years earlier in the countryside of Rathmore, a lush rural community in Kerry. Innocent days. I stopped walking and cast my eyes over the vast landscape that enveloped the ferny bog land, meandering meadows, heather and the ancient mountains. My 17 year old heart filled with joy at the sound of the cuckoo singing her song as though she was welcoming us to her home.

We walked on. We had only gone a few minutes into our walk, an event that had recently become a ritual for dad and me. It was a bonding time. “Who lives there?” asked dad as we passed a neighbours house. “The O Leary’s dad” Dad knew this I thought to myself but said nothing. When we came to the next house he asked the same question. Again I answered knowing that he knew. A few houses later and by now a few miles from home I began struggling to name who lived in each house. He began providing the answers and named every household we came across dotted along that isolated road. On the return home he asked again to make sure that I had remembered the names. And then he stopped walking and as I stopped with him expecting the cuckoo song once more he explained “Community Diarmuid. We live in a community, a good community and it’s very important to know who your neighbours are. And as a car rambled past us and as they exchanged waves with dad he finished with “Always remember the importance of community” . Dad’s no longer of this world but I have never forgotten those words. Words that have shaped my view on community.
Sitting on that train in London three years later, community was far away from my mind.  I had travelled to London to take up a sales job, door to door selling fire safety equipment. For a rural young lad it was an exciting prospect. The company would reimburse your flight there (never happened) and put you up in hotels (2 stars) and feed you! (Tea and toast every morning only). They promised the world and delivered a hard life lesson.  So with less than a hundred pounds in my back pocket I headed for the bright lights of London, a green eared country boy who had only been to a much smaller city like Dublin on a couple of occasions.

It worked like this. At the crack of dawn after our toast we would pile into 3 or 4 different minibuses and we would be dispatched to various streets of London. Once there we would go door to door for a couple of hours trying to sell fire extinguishers, fire blankets and smoke alarms. Beginners luck granted me two sales on my first day so I was spared the wrath. About 3 days in and I hadn’t been selling.  I felt people simply didn’t trust people selling these items door to door but I kept those thoughts to myself. It was a freezing London morning and I had just done a two hour stint with no sale. With only a jumper on over a tee shirt I tried to keep warm by walking up and down the street. The mini bus appeared with my supervisor driving. He slowly go out of his car and approached me. “Any sales” he queried. I muttered a sheepish no and made the mistake of smiling. It was nerves. With that he unleashed a cascade of verbal abuse, the likes I had never encountered before or since! I stood frozen as spittle spayed from his angry mouth. I heard the words about been thrown out on the streets if I didn’t improve. I became aware of people stopping on the street to look but no offers of help came. It would have been a confusing looking scene. ‘Your jumper” he shouted. I looked at him blankly. ‘Take off your damn jumper and give it to me” he continued. He moved much closer to me. I complied. “Now you stand on this spot and don’t move and I will be back in an hour to take you back to the hotel. Slamming the car door he got back into the bus and left me standing in zero degrees in my tee shirt. But the cold wasn’t the only thing I was shaking from. I decided there and then that I was quitting this job but I couldn’t think of anything else. I knew though I hadn’t a penny on me.
Suddenly a parking ticket officer and another man were standing next to me. They had seen what had happened and here were members of the community concerned about this bewildered young man in his tee-shirt. After decline their suggestion to go to the police I explained the bind I was in. One of the guys was a foreman on a building set and said he could give me work but it wouldn’t be for 2 weeks. So I took the sites address grateful that there was light at the end of the hotel.

When I got picked up again by the bus my jumper was thrown at me and I sat quietly on the bus with the other young sales people who were also hushed. Perhaps their morning had been just as bad.  Arriving safely at the hotel I approached the supervisor and handed in two weeks’ notice.  Instead, despite my protestations, I was ordered to pack my bag and leave the hotel. So there I was in a part of London that I knew nothing about without a job, without a home and without money. One of the other salespeople who had seen my plight quickly came out to see me. He handed me a note of paper with a address on it – “It’s a homeless shelter for Irish people – so catch the tube there and good luck’ with that he quickly ran back inside.
It began to rain and I cried with the sky walking to the tube. Pride stopped me from contacting my family in Ireland. I didn’t want to be seen as a failure. Pride is a silly thing. I had no money for the tube so I raced in behind someone else at the barrier at the station and ran to the train as someone shouted angrily at me from behind.

The hostel took me in. I was given a room to share with another young man and that night I cried for hours, alone, scared and with a terrible deep sadness. How could the world be so cruel I thought as an exhausted body eventually drifted into sleep?
In the morning it was all gone. I had actually fallen asleep with my clothes and sneakers still on. My bags were empty. Clothes, shoes. Personal items, everything had been stolen from right under my nose.  All I was left with were the clothes I wore.

After crying for the first few days I began to take a look around me in this hostel. Homeless people were being fed three meals a day and had a bed and shelter. I saw staff, chaplains and volunteers all offering a helping hand. I was given some money to buy hygiene and other items. I could not believe the generosity of people. Why were they helping me? Why were they spending most days here offering support?  I found tears in my eyes would now come for a different reason. These people inspired me. And I wanted to help. I sat with a counsellor and asked if I could help in any way for the rest of my time here. There wasn’t any need for extra help then but we spoke of my desire to work helping others. I had vowed in my heart there and then that I would, if I could, end up working for the community.

I left after a few weeks with the address for the building site. I thanked these community members who had been there for me in this dark time and I walked with a spring in my step the 13 kilometres to the other side of London. I still had no money and no accommodation but this job offered hope. After the end of the first day’s work a worker had offered me a place to stay for the night. Before I left another approached me and handed me an envelope. They had heard of my plight and done a collection amongst the workers. In the envelope was a few hundred pounds enough for a deposit on a place to stay! For about the twentieth time in as many days I was crying again.
I’ve never forgotten that vow I made in London. Not long after arriving in Australia and after taking a dead end job again I walked away finally and absorbed myself in studying Human and Community Services at a TAFE in Brisbane. I have never looked back and have now spent over 21 years helping community through managing volunteers and volunteering myself.

I have seen how community works as a giver and receiver. Sometimes I still tear up when I see volunteers getting together to help the vulnerable in our society. Working in community will always inspire me. Community is the light that still shines despite the turmoil, despite the tragedy and despite the fear. Dad was right. We should know our neighbours. But in this global village we are all neighbours. We are all community.

As Leo Buscaglia told us “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
It did mine.

Dedicated to my dad

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Clock. Ticking.

When Your World Stands Tough And Weighin' You Down
And You've Had Enough Of This Merry-Go-Round
End Your Resistance To Walls You Won't Move
And Runnin' Through Old Déjà Vu's
When There's No Way Out There's Still A Way Through

Cause Now's All There Is
So Peaceful And Still
In Now You Don't Worry 'Bout What's Happened Or What Will
Cause Now Never Ends
And Now's Never Been
And All Of Your Answers Are Waiting For You Here, Now*

This morning I was waiting at the traffic lights to walk across the busy city road. When the green man came on so did the countdown clock on the lights and as I watched the seconds tick away as I walked a funny thought struck me.

Imagine if we had a clock that could count down the seconds in your life that are left. And you looked at it every now and then during the day. And you saw the seconds ticking away as they must do. Would it change the way you view your life? I wouldn’t mind living a healthy life for another 50 years. Checking out at 98 would be as they say “a good innings’!

My own “check out” clock or watch would be giving me another 157680000 seconds of this thing we call “Life” But what, after purchasing this clock and turning it on it read 31,536,000. That means you’ve got a year.

Now, this post is not meant to be morbid or pessimistic. The intent is actually the opposite. I am just postulating on what difference an invention like this would make to humanity.

I think that sometimes we live as though our time to depart will never come. And that may be having consequences on how we live. Sogyal Rinpoche, writing in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, put it well when he said “We are acting as if we were the last generation on the planet. Without a radical change in heart, in mind, in vision, the earth will end up like Venus, charred and dead.”

A check out clock, for me, would simply act as a reminder. Imagine living as if every moment is a precious one. It is. Imagine spending every moment in appreciation at everything that is unfolding in front of you right now.

It would make me more aware of the fact that it is hard to change people and hard to change situations. But the power that I do have is to change my mind on people and situations. If I am in traffic hooting at the car that won’t go at the green light, if my plane is delayed another hour, if a work colleague snaps at me, if my kid breaks some precious china, then I have a choice to remember the “ticking” and not react like I might usually and instead with mindfulness decide that I wont waste precious seconds being negative and reactionary and stressed.

I would use the seconds left to give more and take less. I don’t have to be rich to give. Smiles, hugs, compassion, empathy, friendship and more smiles are mine to give away. Every second gives me an opportunity.

I would forgive more. The bully at work. The parent or family member. The friend who let me down. The perceived enemy.

I would complain less. Accept more. The rainy day is just as beautiful as the sunny one. I would tell those that I love how much I love them, more often.

I would recognise that what is not love is a cry for love.

I would read more books that would inspire me rather than spend my time flicking through Twitter or Facebook feeds and I would watch TV or Netflix less. The best stream is the one out in the countryside flowing into a larger river. That, I would watch more.

I would question more but from a place of loving kindness. I would speak more to power for social justice.

I would be even more passionate about the act of volunteering. Deanna who volunteers 10 hours a week in my office would become Deanna who gives us 36,000 seconds of her precious time a week! We should be dumbfounded and in awe at such generosity and more so when we realise there are millions of Deanna’s across the globe!

It will take practice.

We spend so many of our seconds at the workplace. Spend as much time as you can make it a nicer place to be. There is nothing wrong with nice. It’s OK to say hello and chat. You can be very busy at work and happy too. Your toxic colleague need not ruin your day. Be kind and remember that it could be that they are not aware of their clock ticking.

Eckhart Tolle tells us “... next time you say, «I have nothing in common with this person,» remember that you have a great deal in common: A few years from now - two years or seventy years, it doesn't make much difference - both of you will have become rotting corpses, then piles of dust, then nothing at all. This is a sobering and humbling realization that leaves little room for pride. [... ] In that sense , there is total equality between you and every other creature.”

Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick
* Now by Dave Carroll

Now by Dave Carroll

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Volunteer Managers - Step Up and Influence!

I am thoroughly enjoying my current role in the volunteerism world. Working with the largest volunteering organisation in my state, my role is to design and implement a renewed volunteer framework, policy, standards, guidelines and tools. I’m like a kid let loose in a candy store! It’s a good place to be with my career at the moment. I’ve been managing programs and leading volunteers for over 21 years. To this role I am bringing much experience and it’s a learning curve for me also.  It is also empowering to get organisational support and resources for such a big and important project and I do believe that organisations that invest in excellent volunteer management systems truly value volunteering.

It has been a reflective time for me as well. A part of me still misses the day to day contact that can come with managing volunteers. ‘It’s all about the people” is a mantra I often use for myself and it keeps me “real” in my current work.

Personally it is satisfying to be doing this current project and it goes to what we can do, as volunteer leaders, with our skills and knowledge. Too often, volunteering strategy and policy is designed by people who do not have subject matter expertise. While the involvement of HR in a collaborative way, along with other stakeholders is important for project design and input, delivering projects like these without volunteer management expertise simply does not make sense and can in fact be detrimental to volunteering.

Too often I see Volunteer Managers underselling and undervaluing their own skill set. There remains an unconscious bias, to some degree, that they are after all “just” managing volunteers. Yet, we should all know by now how complex effective volunteer management is. We should know how many skills it requires and that a skilled volunteer leader is worth their weight in gold!

What I love about volunteering the most is that it is ever changing and fluid. The volunteering space can be a breeding ground for innovation. The volunteering world is one of opportunity as well as hope. Shifting volunteering trends, customer experience and sustainability drivers require us to build and implement the appropriate standards, systems and processes to support leaders to manage volunteering resources responsibly, fairly, effectively and creatively. As trends in volunteering show, the volunteering marketplace is becoming increasingly competitive. So now is the time to be reviewing your volunteering strategy!

This is the opportunity for Volunteer Managers to step up to the plate. Maybe your organisation does not have a strategy to begin with? If not, it can all begin with a conversation and a chance for you to influence up or across in your organisation. If you have a current framework check to see if it is still current!

I still remember clearly a Volunteer Management network meeting I attended about 10 years ago. Present amongst the large group were 3 Volunteer Managers from a hospital group. They wanted to discuss a new policy their organisation had released about volunteering. They had some serious concerns about aspects of this policy. When I asked if they had been consulted about the policy before it was released they said no and actually seemed surprised I had asked! This brings me to the crux of the matter. It’s not about power and it’s not about status. As Subject Matter Experts we should have a thorough understanding of the history, culture, objectives and priorities of volunteering in our organisations. We are the ones who should have the thorough understanding of the world in which volunteering operates.

I would go as far to say that effective volunteer leadership needs far more than the operational day to day duties that go hand in hand with volunteer coordination. It needs collaboration and design skills and a strategic overview that aligns your volunteering service to your organisational mission. In the process you have the opportunity to tick the boxes of recognition, renewal, and innovation and enhancing the service you provide to the people we are helping in our communities. And at the end of the day that end result is what it is all about.

To sum up I am encouraging you to step up. Volunteer Managers should have the opportunity to influence and impact your organisations volunteering practice strategically as well as operationally.

Good luck!




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