Tuesday, 6 January 2015

How volunteer management can make you sick

Working as a leader and manager of volunteers can be an all consuming role. We get involved in the lives of our volunteers as well as the politics of our organisations as we constantly try to push water uphill in our efforts to get support and buy in to the volunteer programme. Our work can be exhausting, emotionally and physically. It can leave us wondering why we do it and feeling ill at the thought of another day.

Cheerful huh?

Sometimes we need a reminder of why this is one of the greatest jobs in the world. That's why I want
to look at why volunteer management can make us sick.

Working with volunteers can be highly rewarding. If we step out from behind the bureaucracy and paperwork that has come to define what we do, we can reconnect with the core essence of our role - dealing with people. As someone put it recent, working with volunteers is a contact sport.

Through the opportunities and support we provide we can see people changed. We can see confidence grow, personalities flourish, employment found, friendships made, lives turned around. And that's just the people who volunteer. There's all those who benefit from the work of volunteers too, often some of the most disadvantaged people at the edges of society.

nfpSynergy titled their recent report into volunteering in the 21st century The New Alchemy. Here's why:

"Volunteering takes that most universal of human resources, time. And it takes that universal resource, so often squandered, and makes it transformational of people’s lives. It takes a universal base asset and turns it into the human gold of changed lives."

For all those years alchemists toiled away to turn lead into gold and none succeeded. We have the privilege of seeing that success every day.

Getting people to give up their time and work for a good cause for no financial reward isn't easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it everywhere. Put simply, being a leader and manager of volunteers hones your skills at inspiring others. We get good at getting people to be there because they want to be, not because they have to be.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner summed this up well in the introduction to their excellent book The Leadership Challenge. The book is aimed at leaders in big business but this quote sums up why we Volunteer Managers are the very essence of inspirational leadership:
"To get a feel for the true essence of leadership, assume that everyone who works with you is a volunteer. Assume that your employees are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. In fact, they really are volunteers - especially those you depend upon the most. The best people are always in demand and they can choose where they lend their talents and gifts. They remain because they volunteer to stay."
That quote still inspires me today, but probably not as much as you inspire your volunteers every day.

Ok, hands up how many of you have a multi-million budget for your volunteer programme? I thought so.

Managers of volunteers have to be some of the most creative people in an organisation. Consider just three examples:

  1. We have to take the limited resources we have and turn them into the gold our organisation needs. 
  2. We have to compete against marketing and advertising budgets many orders of magnitude beyond what we have if we are to get people to give us a small piece of their time instead of anything else they could be doing - spending time with family & friends, going to the movies, watching the match etc..
  3. We have to find new ways for people to contribute what little time they have available, in flexible ways, to help meet our organisations mission.

The ability to be creative and innovative is increasingly important in our modern world where the pace of change grows ever faster and new ideas come along like busses after a long wait. Leaders and managers of volunteers have such creativity in spades. We are often heads and shoulders above our colleagues who, when faced with rapidly shifting sands, fall back on old, outdated ways of doing things to try and succeed e.g. fundraising our way through a downturn until the good old days - that they have deluded themselves will return - come back.

Sure, we don't have all the answers but we could be a key part of the solution. Stand tall and be confident in your creative talents.

In her seminal book, From The Top Down, Susan Ellis talks about leaders of volunteers being the only people in an organisation, other than the CEO, who have an overview of almost everything that the agency does. We have to because we probably support the engagement of volunteers across the whole organisation (or does it just feel like that some days?).

In another of her excellent books, The (Help!) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management, Susan (and co-author Katherine Noyes Campbell) list out in detail the scope of the role of a Volunteer Manager. It runs to multiple pages and illustrates clearly how we have to be Jacks (and Jills) of all trades and masters of many (if not all) too.

For anyone in a volunteer management role we should never underestimate how much skill, ability and knowledge we amass in our work. That's not to say we should be arrogant know-it-alls but we should revel in having and growing a breadth and depth of knowledge about working in the nonprofit world that few others will ever gain over many years of experience.

So there you have it, volunteer management can make you sick.

You can see success every day.

You can be inspirational to others.

You can be a creative genius.

You can be a hugely knowledgable asset to your organisation.

Next time you feel ground down by what you do, think on those four things and I hope you will regain some of your motivation and drive.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Three lessons for volunteer programmes from customer service

Dan, a colleague of mine at the volunteer management software provider, Better Impact, recently recommended a new blog to follow called "Win The Customer". Initial impressions have been good so I've added it to my already lengthy list of blogs I follow.

Here I want to share one early highlight, a post entitled Three Retail Experience Trends That Will Change Your Service Approach.

I highly recommend reading this article before you go any further with my post as I want to highlight three parallels for leaders and manages of volunteers. So, off you go and I'll see you back here in a couple of minutes.


Right, I hope you liked that. Here's my thoughts on three applications of those lessons for us in our work with volunteers.

The Rise Of The Mobile Wallet
In retail the use of mobile devices as a method of payment seems to be growing. How is is or could this be manifesting in volunteer management?

Well, online searching for volunteer opportunities is nothing new. The soon to be re-launched Do-It is a teenager already and similar sites exist across the globe.

What is less common is online signup to volunteering. So many organisations, if they even have a good webpage dedicated to their volunteer programme, still ask people to download a form and submit it via email in order to apply to become a volunteer. 

The aforementioned Better Impact system enables volunteers to fill in a form online and apply directly into the organisations volunteer database. No more print and send. What’s more volunteers can do this, and manage there profile, sign up for shifts, log hours etc., via a smartphone.

Mobile use of the web is skyrocketing and the expectations we all have to manage our lives on to the go - from banking to online shopping - continue to grow too. Volunteering is not immune. Volunteers want to manage their volunteering online and not being able to do so could increasingly turn people off your organisation.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned things like paying you volunteers’ expenses via mobile payment systems like PingIt or people applying to volunteer direct from Facebook with their applications populated automatically with the data Facebook holds on them (which is probably more than they even know about themselves!). 

Brick-And-Mortar Gets Interactive
The point the original article makes here is how can we enhance a shopper’s experience in store via mobile technology? For example, wan we give them free wifi and augmented reality apps so they can virtually try on that item of clothing and see all the different colour choices available, perhaps including those not available inshore?

In volunteer management terms I think there are two ways we can consider this trend, both relate to that period between the volunteer signing up and actually starting their role, a period that can be drawn out if intensive screening is involved.

First, how can we use online and mobile technology to provide or enhance the induction and any training we offer. Could volunteers take a virtual tour of the site via a YouTube video? Is there online learning material specific to their role that they could be working through? 

Second, if the vetting period takes a while, are there roles volunteers could be doing online that would be suitable for them until vetting is completed? What needs doing that could be packaged as a short-term, bite-sized opportunity that could lend itself to mobile? For example, monitoring the social media feeds of similar organisations to broaden the new volunteers awareness of the issues they will deal with (whilst at the same time perhaps gaining insights into ‘competitor’ behaviour for you).

Harnessing The Power Of Social Shopping
We’re all used to rating our shopping experiences online. Amazon has provided that facility for years and whether its a war and peace review or one of those “quick delivery” two-worders, chances are most of you reading this have rated something somewhere online.

I remember the idea being mooted a few years back that volunteers should be able to rate their experiences online on sites like Do-It. The reaction from Volunteer Managers and Volunteer Involving Organisations was less than enthusiastic. Perhaps because the Volunteer Involving Organisations involved are all too aware that what they offer volunteers is far from satisfactory and their ratings would reflect this?

Social media has opened this up regardless of whether a formal rating system exists. If someone has a bad time volunteering with you they can be straight onto their social network of choice ensuring their friends, family and colleagues don’t repeat their mistake.

Conversely, however, give volunteers a great time and they may be all to happy (perhaps with a little encouragement) to share their positivity about your agency with their networks.

Erik Qualman, in his book Socialnomics, refers to this as both ‘Word of mouth to world of mouth” and “Word of mouth on digital steroids”. In other words, social media is not to be feared so much as embraced as a key way to enhance the form of recruitment that consistently comes out as most effective around the world - word of mouth or personal recommendation.

You can do simple things like give your volunteers a hashtag to put on any posts they make about their volunteering, or give them some simple guidelines on what is appropriate for them to post on Instagram or Pinterest when they are volunteering?

So, there you have it, my three lessons for volunteer programmes from customer service, or at least adapted from the blog Dan shared with me.

What lessons can you share from customer service for volunteer programmes?

Specifically, what ideas do you have for how the customer service experience we give our volunteers can be enhanced via online and mobile technology?

Finally, if you’ve embraced online and mobile in this way, what did you do and what did you learn?

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.