Sunday, December 28, 2014

Volunteering 2015 - Time to wake up!

I've been involved with volunteering now as a volunteer and volunteer manager for almost 35 years! As the year draws to an end I like to look at the state of volunteering. This year I am not greatly comforted by what I see but there are hopeful signs.
The big topic that I think that will define volunteering in 2015 will be the definition of volunteering

The definition of Volunteering

“Volunteering is an activity performed in the not for profit sector only.” This is part of the definition of volunteering by Volunteering Australia. This definition is wrong. It is an insult to thousands of volunteers in Australia who still volunteer for organizations that have been privatized such as hospitals, nursing homes etc. and it even questions publicly owned institutions like organizations owned by government.
I was recently at the IAVE conference on volunteering also known as the world conference on volunteering. I participated in a great workshop on the “definition of volunteering” I believed that I had something to contribute because I heard that VA was exploring the definition of volunteering. I gave my number and contact details. What do I get? No call. No email. Nothing. If you want to discuss definitions of volunteering folks please talk to people who sit outside your so called definitions and scope of practice! Get out of your echo chambers! If you want to stick with your archaic definitions that is long as you talk with others with diverse views.


I think that organizations like Volunteering Tasmania and Volunteering Queensland are leading the field! I base this on their thinking, their websites and their people. Volunteering NSW is up there with them. In fact most of the state bodies seem to be up there with the times while VA still suffers from an old fashioned image in my view.
No Progress:

I am a Volunteer Manager. An individual. I have a blog. That is it. Volunteer manager associations (VMAs) should be involved in this talk. The problem with VMAs is that they have no narrative. Especially in Australia. I won’t have this blog published on the AAMOV site as it will exist outside their echo chamber. As a blogger who has close to a quarter million page views it’s pretty poor when your own association won’t even link to you. But there is a lot of politics in play in Volunteer Management believe it or not.

The year ahead can be an opportunity for volunteering and volunteer management. I say this every year. But the reason I have returned to blogging this year is to call a spade a spade. In the past I was chased away from speaking my thoughts by some personal attacks. Not criticism or disagreement. I can always argue the point. Volunteering and volunteer management needs a voice. Right now there’s not much volume to that voice. I aim to be a voice once more. Because right now Volunteering doesn’t even know what it is according to our peak body and our body representing out volunteer mangers is fairly toothless!
This will only change by the expression of these sentiments!
Thanks for following my blog and have a wonderful 2015!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Volunteer Managers: We’re still a little bit too Fluffy!

I've been to many workshops and conferences on Volunteer Management over the last 17 years. One that still stands out in my memory was a presentation by Martin J Cowling. My memory of it may not be precise but he showed a photo of what he felt many people thought of Volunteering. It was a big Teddy Bear.  Nice, fluffy, feel good and ever so cuddly. At the time it hit the target straight in the bull’s eye!

Unfortunately I think volunteering is thought of like that today. Nice, comfy, feel good emotions abound when people think of volunteering. Volunteers are the Lifeblood of society. Lovely volunteers. We couldn’t do it without your big hearts. Bleh!

Jayne Cravens, a Volunteer management consultant among many other talents has rallied against the fluffy language in which we describe volunteers and volunteering. She’s even warned us about International Volunteer Managers Day turning into something similar.

I recently read a blog on the difficulty Volunteer Managers had in firing a volunteer. Now don’t get me wrong. Releasing a volunteer can be an uncomfortable experience. But I am sure no more uncomfortable than a manager firing a member of paid staff. But in a comment posted by Rob Jackson he went on to say
“I recall being struck by Rick Lynch and Steve McCurley's thinking on this topic years ago. They were quite clear that if we have to fire a volunteer we have to acknowledge that somewhere along the line some aspect of our volunteer management has failed.” 

I couldn't disagree more with Rick and Steve!

This would not be the case for a manager of Human Resources needing to do what they needed to do. Sometimes something’s go bad. Through no fault of the managers. A volunteer who enters a program through the appropriate stages and who then repeatedly breaches either conduct or your mission and who is managed professionally and properly through these difficulties and who is eventually asked to leave may not be a sign that volunteer management has failed. Why take that simplistic view. And I am sure that most VMs would agree with me. Plus I believe the theory is dangerous insofar that it may discourage VMs to take firm action because they might think that some aspect of their management has failed!

The other thing that struck me about this blog on was that fact that this is the hardest thing in the world. Please. If we can’t have the strength to do this and do this properly then we shouldn't be managing people. If we come to the end of the line and are worried about making this final decision and are worried about hurting feelings then we are lacking some key managerial skills.

Of course we should care about volunteers as any manager should care about their team. But if we can’t face a toxic or belligerent volunteer and have that difficult conversation then we need to question our ability to be a VM. Neither should we walk away from that final meeting feeling gutted and sad and sorry for the volunteer. As long as we are following due process we should walk away feeling that this is what we had to do and that this was in the best interest of the team and the organization.

If we want to advance as a sector and be taken seriously we have a lot of growing up to do. We are not there to “look after the Vollies”. We complain when organizations ask team members who have no VM experience to “look after the Vollies”. We need to advocate for volunteers and volunteering yes! We need to advocate for our own roles yes. We need to fight for resources respect and recognition Yes. But we should not contribute to the fluffy Teddy bear view of volunteering.

If we bring too much emotion to the job of managing volunteers we need to question ourselves. I once had a senior member of an organization express outrage at my decision not to take on a volunteer after I interviewed them. There were many good reasons I did not take on that volunteer and I stuck to my guns! Imagine a HR manager begin similarly criticized. It doesn't happen.

Being too nice simply because we are involved with volunteers can be dangerous. We become afraid to challenge toxic volunteers. We are weakened when we deal with volunteers who may bully. We take on volunteers we should never take on.

Yes we all know that volunteerism is a powerful movement. But it is a movement powered by people and sometime we encounter people who do not fit for various reasons and we need strength and confidence in dealing with this.

Not tears. Not guilt. Not hand wringing.

A cold view? No. A realistic and self-caring view. There are many VMs out there that need to hear this. The fluffy language of some commentary within our sector will not help them.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tears for Volunteers

I've been to six funerals this year. All volunteers who were part of our team. Today I was at one of them. Tony (not his real name) volunteered for 18 months. At his initial interview he surprised me. He revealed that he had terminal cancer and that he wanted to do positive things with the rest of his life and volunteer. I later learnt that he had been a positive guy most of his life. His spirit always shone through. Always smiling. Always kind. Tony actually inspired me to do Movember last year. I raised some money for men’s cancer such as prostrate. Today I shed a tear, no; I shared a few at Tony’s service. His volunteering was mentioned in the Eulogy, pictures of him in his volunteer uniform flashed up on a screen with other memories of his life.

Afterwards I stood near a field near where the service took place. Kangaroos stood and watched me. Their Joeys were sneaking peeks at me from their pouches. Grey clouds rolled across a vast sky and a gentle breeze kept the temperature at comfortable. It was a serene moment as I stood there reflecting. And I thought of Volunteer managers across the world and the different circumstances they deal with throughout their career.

Death is never easily spoken about. The subject can shine a light upon your own mortality. It can reopen painful wounds. When a volunteer passes on it can affect your team, your staff and you.

I don’t know of any other manager within my organization that has gone to as many team member funerals this year. Yes there have been some. And yes – the grief is just as strong.

People on the paid workforce normally retire mid sixties. It may be later in some countries, earlier in others. Volunteers, volunteer on. Many retirees volunteer. The previous funeral I attended was for a precious and wonderful 95 year old volunteer. But death has not discriminated with age this year. There have been tragedies and sad surprises.

The fact is that we do have an older population in many cases on many of our teams. We welcome this. We welcome all ages. I have no data or proof that Volunteer Managers deal more with death than any other managers of paid people in many workplaces. But I suspect this may be the case.

I see very little written on the subject. I've broached the topic previously but got no comment or reaction. It is as if it’s an uncomfortable topic. But I also know that many people who lead volunteers and are reading this are nodding their heads right now.

There are no steadfast rules on grief and coping with the death of a team member be it sudden or expected. It’s good just to know that you are not alone out there and that many of us have this experience. We can grieve too. In our own way and in our own time. But we also need to give ourselves permission to talk about these things. Can we share how we deal with this at our next network meeting or write a response here for other people to see or write our own blog?

We often put on a brave face. We are there for our organizations, the volunteers, the staff, the clients, and much more. We deal with sad news and put on a happy face for the next volunteering shift, the next meeting or concentrate on the next report.

We deal professionally with the minute matters that seem huge to some people after we return from a heart wrenching funeral. And that’s us. Volunteer Managers. We keep on going on.

But we need self-care too. We need to take the time out to reflect. We too need that bit of space. Keeping on going on could well lead to burn out. We need to support each other as well as our teams. We need to be kind to ourselves.

Being at a volunteer funeral can feel like being at a family funeral. In a way they are similar. Volunteers pull together like families. There are hugs, tears, laughing at the funnier times and fun memories. But then we all go home to our own lives. We give an extra hug to those that love us and to those that we love.

I write this in memory of all the volunteers who have passed away this year.

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