Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Leaders of Volunteers. Stop Work!

“Dear Boss. I need to take a day’s leave. Why? Its International Volunteer Management Stoppage Day.” No no no..It’s not a strike. In fact it’s an annual leave day but I’m taking it in conjunction with hundreds of Volunteer Managers across the globe at my own expense because we feel our sector is unseen, unrecognised, poorly compensated and quite simply it’s a day to demonstrate our frustration after years of attempts to get noticed and to gain respect.  We hope that by taking this action that we can respectfully send a message that may even garner some media attention about our role in society. What was that? Oh yes – of course everything is fine in my organisation but I’m doing this in solidarity with the volunteer leaders around the world:

·         Who Have little or no Executive Support

·         Who are seen as second rate managers or leaders just because they lead volunteers

·         Whose pay is not equivalent to other senior managers

·         Whose value is “devalued” because they “just manage the Vollies”

·         Who don’t have a say when critical organisational decisions are made that effect the volunteers

·         Etc. etc. ad nauseam

No no…It’s not an annual event. It’s just a once off. It goes to the mind boggling frustration evident in our sector. It will be a day when the sector light up Twitter and Facebook internationally and our community gets to talk about the value of effective Volunteer Management. Who knows? We might get the attention of some leaders in other sectors. We will be open to tips and advice from sectors that are valued and recognised. During our day we will actually be working – we will be networking, sharing ideas, debriefing, innovating and maybe coming up with some action plans and Key Performance Indicators moving forward. Yeah – any every time we send a message using #IVMSD we will copy in our local and national media outlets, our politicians and maybe get a slot on a radio or TV show and make some people sit up and take a bit of notice. Because you know what? We have been going around in circles for many years and now we are getting a bit too dizzy. Thanks Boss, I’ll see you the day after.”

The above is a conversation cloaked in satire. Luckily I write from a place where I feel my program and position is currently recognised and appropriately supported. But having a look at some of the current narrative in our sector is disheartening.

Susan J Ellis wrote a June Hot Topic recently that is simply a must read for anyone in our sector https://www.energizeinc.com/hot-topics/2015/may

Ellis opens with “I’ve been writing these Hot Topics monthly since 1997 – which means this is the 217th essay I have tried to say something fresh every month, although some issues circle back around over and over again. One of those recurring themes has been, “Why are so many executives clueless about volunteer involvement…and therefore do stupid things that limit volunteer participation?”

Ellis then lists some great examples and goes on to explore the lack of knowledge, thoughtlessness and arrogance that has severe ramifications for those of us who lead volunteer teams. She goes on to ask some pertinent questions with one of my favorites being:

 “What have our professional associations/networks done to educate others about volunteer management? What might they do moving forward?”

What indeed? And therein lies the crux of the problem – are we not educating the right people about Volunteer Management? It’s not an association’s duty to educate Volunteer Managers about Volunteer Management. When did you last see a fish at a swimming class? Where is the effort from our associations to get other management and executive attention? I’m happy to stand corrected if I am wrong.

 The responses on Ellis’ website to her post speak for themselves:

 “I have not been allowed to educate staff in how volunteers should be processed into our organization”

 “I share your frustration with Senior Management”

 “As a one person department in an office isolated from my supervisor and other administrators, nobody really knows what I do.”

 “They pay "lip service" to the importance of volunteers”

 It’s also interesting to note the amount of people posting their thoughts anonymously. And who can blame them? Some people won’t rock the boat in our sector for fear of been thrown overboard.

Now let’s travel from a post in the United States to a post from New Zealand. Sue Hine has written a brilliant blog post called “Out of Sight Out of Mind”  https://management4volunteers.wordpress.com/

 In it Hine states

 “There’s the metaphoric symbolism of locating the volunteer office, and the manager’s desk, in the basement or down the end of a long corridor. That could really put volunteers out of sight and out of mind.
  • The lowly status of a manager of volunteers becomes clear in the job title (‘Volunteer’ manager / coordinator) and a pay scale that can be 20% below other managers in the organisation – though the numbers of volunteers could be ten times the number of paid staff. And too often the manager misses out on strategic planning meetings or management training sessions because “you don’t manage staff”.
  • We all know how volunteers do not come for free, yet too often there is no budget allocation for programme costs.”

Hine goes on to talk about the Susan J Ellis topic as well but expresses eloquently her own frustration that “the social and cultural benefits of volunteering and its critical function for a healthy Civil Society are totally ignored.”

These bloggers are brave as they bring these matters to our attention. I still meet leaders of volunteers who share the exact same sentiments as shared here but they feel unable, for whatever reason, to voice their much needed opinion.

So where do we go from here? What can we do to ensure bloggers are not having this discussion in five years’ time? Can our Associations pick up on this frustration and articulate a cohesive narrative on it? As Sue Hine has noted we must put a bigger emphasis on our National Standards or Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer Involvement. We must aim for the goal of having organisations that involve volunteers being accredited. We need to give a national tick of approval to organisations doing the right thing and encourage and educate other organisations to do the same thing. For that to happen successfully our National bodies on volunteering need encouragement and funding. They need the support of the Volunteer Management sector and the associations that represent them. Its time to work together more closely.

In 2015 watching volunteer managers struggle because of lack of organisational support or watching volunteers only receive lip service is simply not good enough anymore. It needs to be called out! It needs to stop! Because it is not right! Volunteers, Volunteer Managers, Peak bodies for volunteering, volunteer involving organisations and Associations representing the interest of volunteer leaders must work together on this. Corporates and Government should also support the national implementation of standards. From lip service to action, from aloofness to interest, from devaluing to recognising how volunteers contribute and how those who lead volunteers are an integral part of the equation.

Failure to do so may lead to International Volunteer Management Stoppage Day. I nominate April 1st as some in the sector feel treated that way!

Over to you.


  1. Two winters ago, it was brutally cold - 20-40 below zero for weeks. I encourage our volunteers to not come in if they don't feel it is safe. I want you to volunteer next week and not be a patient today. Only in Volunteer Services do you have to make a rule of when to not come in.

    So, on one of the brutally cold days, I was at the Information Desk because the volunteers couldn't make it in. Our Human Resources Director walks by and says: "Oh, none of the volunteers could make it in? They are so cute sitting here at the desk!" A couple deep breaths later, I said: "They are not cute. They are vital members of our team and they play an important role for our visitors, our patients and their families." She called later to apologize.

    I don't think other managers and directors realize that everything (and more!) that they do for their department employees (any where from 4-80), I have to do for all 240 of our volunteers. Onboarding, orientation, annual education, annual health screenings, annual evaluations. Just because they are only here for 4 hours a week doesn't make it easier. Each volunteer is still a singular human being.

    Thanks again for the great articles. You speak to the great joy and pain of the best job in the whole hospital!

    Kari Knudson
    Volunteer Services Manager
    Sanford Bemidji Medical Center
    Bemidji, Minnesota, USA

    1. Hi Kari

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment and greetigns to you all in Minnesota. I think your example goes to the heart of the matter! Cute, Lovely little, etc. are words I have heard used to describe volunteers. Martin J Cowling once did a great presentation on the subject years ago. On his powerpoint he had a picture of a cute cuddly teddy bear!

      If you can, and havent already done so, do a presentation to other managers on your role. I do presentations to staff on the role of the volunteers and also include a section on what our staff who lead them do.

      I also use the following quote. I cant find the person who originally wrote it but it's worht sharing:

      "In some organisations, volunteers tend to do mostly what the staff has decided it would rather not. That's a counterproductive bias that tends to reinforce a cycle of low expectations and the treatment of volunteers as well-meaning guests, rather than vital contributors"

      Again, thanks for your reply Kari and way to go with your response to the HR Director! I Hope to get more responses and a discussion going so please share with your networks!

    2. Good on you Kari for your concern at having volunteers braving freezing cold weather and discouraging them from not coming in to volunteer under those conditions and good on you for standing your ground with the Director of HR. You could have also suggested that he/she too could look very cute at the information desk when he/she volunteers after he/she retires!!!

    3. As a volunteer manager myself, I grimace when asked the question "what do you do for a living?" I know what the reaction will be when I respond. It will be a stunned silence followed by a quick subject change or a response of "how nice, how lovely" both responses are equally degrading as they make the assumption that I have half a brain and that the Vollies I look after have even less of a brain and that I am just filling in doing this job while waiting for retirement. How insulting to all. Obviously people that make these patronising comments have never volunteered themselves and are completely clueless to what is involved in managing people whether they are volunteers or paid staff. They are completely oblivious to the positive impact that a friendly caring face with a compassionate caring attitude can have on someone who is scared, exhausted, overwhelmed, confused........ People who generously give their time for free deserve better and those who manage the programs that they are involved in deserve better.

    4. Many thanks for taking your time to post a response. I suggest you ask anyone who says it to explain what they mean by "How nice" or "How lovely". Hopefully that will give you the chance to educate them! I love your suggestion to Kari too!

  2. What a great idea - ironic or not. If we also ask our volunteers to join us, we might just make a big enough impact that the massive contribution of volunteers and their managers gets noticed by its absence.

    In my own training sessions I have often asked volunteer managers to imagine a situaton in which volunteers did not exist and to describe the impact on their own organisations. This is the nightmare that we need to get other managers, trustees and collegues to recognise.

  3. Thanks for the commwents Dave! You might be onto something with your idea! We need to do something or we will eb back blogging the same old stories in another five years!!

  4. wow, this is so beautiful, am touch by these. I manage a local NGO that do volunteer placements , and also promotes local volunteering, we cater for orphanages and run few projects on women and youth empowerment through volunteering. Am looking forward to learning so much from you guys, and also running volunteer placement partnership programs with some of your organizations. this is my organization official website: www.sedarvpghana.org

    Thank you for such an inspiring message


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