Thursday, 21 May 2015

The volunteer is always right? Wrong!

I've recently been reviewing my training material on dealing with problem behaviour by volunteers. It's not my favourite course to run because I much prefer to work with clients to help them try and avoid problems with their volunteers.

Sadly, however, dealing with problem behaviour remains a common issue when it comes to working with volunteers. There can be all sorts of causes for this.

I've seen problem behaviour in volunteers as a result of organisations focusing so much on processes around volunteering that they fail to remember that volunteering is a people business and thus fail to treat volunteers as individuals. Instead, volunteers are viewed almost like widgets at the end of a process, faceless units of production who should keep quiet and get on with things.

I've seen problem behaviour in volunteers as a result of organisations slashing the resourcing for the volunteer programme, leaving no capacity to engage and support people effectively yet assuming that volunteers will do as they did before. They are free after all, aren't they?

I've also seen problem behaviour in volunteers as a result of staff (including volunteer managers) treating volunteers with kid gloves. I see it in agencies that will not challenge problem behaviour in case the volunteer leaves, in agencies that think they can't hold volunteers to account for what they do and in agencies that think you can never sack a volunteer. In these organisations, volunteers are often seen as always being right.


If we don't hold volunteers to account for what they achieve they we effectively say we don't care what volunteers do because it has no value!

If we say we can't fire volunteers (and that should always be a last resort) then we effectively say any behaviour by volunteers is acceptable.

The reason I was prompted to write this post was an article I read recently from a customer service blog I subscribe to. The article is entitled "The customer is not always right, but is always a customer". I encourage you to go and read it now but replace the word 'customer' with the word 'volunteer' and think about the article in the context of your volunteer programme, then come back to this post.

American colleague Jayne Cravens has written about why people often see no complaints from volunteer as a measure of success. In the same way I think we mainly see problem behaviour by volunteers as a bad thing and the absence of problem behaviour as a good thing. Yet as argue (and I've made minor edits to make it fit our volunteering context):

"Negative feedback is the best place to start working to make your organization or team even better. Some people just never complain, they won’t say what bothers them, even if something really does. A volunteer complaint, expressed to you or not, is an opportunity for a competitor to take your volunteer. A volunteer who is bothered by something you do or don’t do, will leave the door open for someone else to try and meet their wants and needs." 
"Be open to the complaints, the negative feedback, the upset people. Show them you care, ask them to be involved in the process of making things better. Get ideas from them on what would make their experience perfect. Then get to work on making it happen. You’ll make yourself better, your team better, your product, good, or service better. And in the process, create loyal, committed, passionate volunteers who believe in your cause because they know you truly care about them, not just the time they give."
So to summarise, volunteers are not always right. Sometimes they can be a royal pain in the butt. Yet every time you get a 'problem volunteer' situation you encounter a brilliant opportunity to learn, develop your programme and make volunteering with your organisation an even better experience.

Now isn't that a better way to look at the issue of problem behaviour by volunteers?

See also - The lessons for volunteer programmes from customer service

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

My thoughts on the Australian National Review of the Definition of Volunteering

The following blog post is taken from a contribution I was asked to make to Volunteering Australia's recent consultation on changing their national definition of volunteering. The original can be found on the Volunteering Australia website.

I'm sharing my contribution to Australia's review following my article for Third Sector online in March 2015 where I called for a similar review here in the UK. I think it's important we re-visit these issues more regularly than we are doing but they cut to the core of what we as a society and sector stand for in volunteering. Because, as the old adage goes, if we don't stand for something we will fall for anything.
I commend Volunteering Australia for holding this consultation on the Australian definition of volunteering. In our ever changing world where nothing stands still for very long, to still be using a definition that is almost 20 years old is quite amazing.
Much has changed in just the last few years and the time is right to take a fresh look at an issue often viewed as obscure, irrelevant to all but the most conceptually minded people and more philosophical than practical. I couldn’t disagree with such views more: there is nothing as practical as a good theory!
In determining a new definition of volunteering I think a fundamental question needs to be asked: What do we want this definition to do for us? What is it’s purpose? Who will benefit from it? OK, that’s three questions but you get my point.
For example, if we want to come up with a standard way of measuring volunteering across multiple organisations then we develop a nice, easy definition that constrains volunteering within measurable bounds. The International Labor Organisation has sought to do this with its’ efforts to standardise the financial measurement of volunteering around the globe.
Unfortunately, in such an approach we reduce volunteering to less than it’s whole. Problems subsequently arise. If we see volunteering in such small terms we miss out on the richness of the larger scope and diversity of voluntary activity.
Much of the debate in the excellent issues paper which accompanies Volunteering Australia’s current consultation focuses on the advantages to the establishment of a new definition. By that I mean that many views are put forward about how bodies such as government, Volunteer Resource Centres, State peak bodies, Volunteer Involving Organisations, Volunteer Managers and others would benefit from a new definition.
Widening the definition of volunteering widens the constituency existing infrastructure bodies can claim, increasing their influence and strengthening their argument for better support.
Widening the definition of volunteering can widen the influence Volunteer Managers have, as noted above, and can position the profession more positively within Australian society.
Do we want the new Australian definition of volunteering to suit the definers (my concept of establishment) or the nation as a whole? The issues paper acknowledges that, “the current definitions does not reflect how significant numbers of Australians give their time, nor is it well aligned to the Australian community’s view of how they ‘volunteer’ ”.
So my question is, should the purpose of new definition be to help Australians see that the way they give time already is in fact volunteering?
I admit I am a fan of this approach. In helping others to see that their time giving is volunteering we raise awareness of the diversity and breadth of volunteering.
If more people see themselves as volunteers more people take an interest in volunteering issues – more people ask their politicians about volunteering, engage in dialogue with others using the v-word and in doing so change our associations with the concept volunteering to fit 21st century society.
The establishment will surely benefit from this although such benefits may take longer to realise as the new definition has to permeate into Australian culture and across society.
So what could such a definition be? I always plumb for the one articulated by the late American volunteerism thinker, writer and leader, Ivan Scheier:
“Volunteering is doing more than you have to, because you want to, in a cause you consider good”.
Ivan’s definition is a masterpiece of brevity, openness and clarity all in one sentence. It does not need a further set of principles to explain (a concept I’ve always found odd, surely a definition should be definitive?) and allows me to define if what I do is volunteering or not. It is not bound by sectoral boundaries. It includes the concept of free will, as the individual defines it. It doesn’t subjugate volunteering as a second class activity after paid work as many others do.
Of course, Ivan’s definition isn’t perfect. No definition will be. But it is elegant in its simplicity.
I commend it to you Australia for your consideration.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

What I think about the latest Tory proposal on volunteering

Last Friday (10 April 2015) David Cameron announced that if the Conservatives win the UK General Election on 7th May 2015 they would introduce a new legal right for employees in the public sector and large private firms to have three days a year of paid leave in order to volunteer.

Recognising the benefits of employee volunteering, many groups were quick to endorse the proposals.

CIPD (the professional body for Human Resources) welcomed the idea as did the Confederation of British Industry.

Amusingly, the trade union movement - who are usually so quick to criticise volunteers as the enemy of paid workers - quickly backtracked on their initial cautious welcome when it became apparent volunteering for a union would not be considered under the scheme.

Many in the Voluntary and Community Sector have also warmly welcomed Cameron’s proposal.

NCVO’s Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington blogged on why it would be good for business whilst Kristen Stephenson helpfully outlined why employee volunteering can be a good thing more broadly.

The Charities Aid Foundation also gave their endorsement as did the sector Chief Executives body ACEVO, whose Director of Policy, Asheem Singh, was quoted in Civil Society saying:

“This is exciting news – it recognises the crucial role of charities in building a better society. The workplace is a new frontier for social action, and this new legal right will help support a new generation of socially responsible citizens.”

However, at an event on Monday some senior fundraisers (not volunteer managers, fundraisers!) called into question the viability of the Conservative proposal whilst both CSV and Timebank have made the point that it needs properly thinking though and resourcing if it is to work.

The Association of Volunteer Managers have said nothing.

So what do I think?

Let’s start with the positive. To an extent I agree that anything which promotes and encourages volunteering is to be welcomed. However, I have two big caveats to this.

First, the solution is not always more volunteers. As I said when I blogged on the Labour Party’s proposals for volunteering back in 2014:

“We are concerned Labour are falling into the common trap of assuming that more volunteers is a measure of success. Any professional leader and manager of volunteers would be quite clear that if an organisation’s mission can be fulfilled effectively with ten volunteers then to recruit 100 to do the same task is wasteful and inefficient.”

Second, initiatives to increase the supply of volunteers completely fail to recognise that the demand needs to be there for these people. Meaningful opportunities need creating to accommodate all these additional time givers and ensure they have a great experiences as volunteers. A shortcut to disaster would be to engage loads of new people, manage them badly, give them a terrible experience and send them on their way. Do you imaging many (any?) of them would be keen to volunteer again? Moreover, as the Boston Globe highlighted recently, employee volunteering can be more of a burden than a help to many good causes.

So, if that’s the positive (!), what about the negative?

First, the Conservative proposals are yet another example of a political party policy initiative on volunteering that looks good but fails to acknowledge that investment is needed to make it happen. Volunteering is freely given but not cost free. As I just noted, if all these additional volunteers are going to come forward opportunities need creating, organisational cultures need to be changed to be more open towards volunteers and resource (time, money, will to act etc.) needs finding to organise it all and maximise the potential impact.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Tory announcement is the failure of most of the main sector bodies to even acknowledge that for the idea to work something needs to change. Whether that something is the attitude of leaders in the sector to properly understand and support volunteering, or it is funding for more volunteer management resource, or both, nobody except Timebank or CSV appears to have even raised this issue. Worse, the professional association for volunteer managers has been totally silent.

Second, and related, is the issue of infrastructure. It has long been accepted that good employee volunteering happens when a competent broker gets involved. This broker negotiates the needs of the good cause with the aims of the employer and matches the two up to best mutual benefit. 

Sadly, the last government’s austerity agenda slashed funding for national and local volunteering infrastructure to the point where the capacity to deliver something like Cameron’s new proposals barely exists compared to five years ago. Not only have the organisations closed or significantly downsized but much of the knowledge and expertise built up over many years has left the roles that were made redundant. 

Perhaps there is no better illustration of the short-sightedness of dismantling the sector's support infrastructure whilst expecting volunteering to flourish.

Third, and finally, what is acceptable volunteering? Set aside the old debate about whether paid time off for volunteering is actually volunteering (and I think it is - is paid time off for holiday not holiday?) but the position on union volunteering makes it clear that the Conservatives view some volunteering as more valid than other ways of giving time. This is not a new issue but one that rarely gets thought through. 

Consider these two previous examples:

  1. The Local Government Association (LGA) proposing that people get a discount on their Council Tax if they volunteer, an idea that seems to have stalled when it became apparent how much record keeping and administration is required to assess and approve what it valid volunteering and how much time people give to those causes.
  2. The last Labour government’s wizard wheeze to speed up citizenship applications for those immigrants who volunteer, an idea which collapsed for the exact same reason as the LGA’s idea.

So what will constitute valid volunteering under Cameron’s grand new volunteering plan? Who will assess and approve this? Who will record how much of those three days gets used? What will happen to people’s legal right to time off to volunteer for other causes? These questions are all unanswered and until they are addressed I cannot endorse the idea at all.

Of course these proposals may only see the light of day if we get a Conservative government on May 8th. Given the closeness of this election that seems an unlikely outcome. I can see the idea being dropped as quickly as possible in any coalition negotiations. 

So maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about the Tories and their new idea, but we definitely should worry at the response - or lack thereof - of the majority of sector bodies. This is the first chance in a post-Volunteering England age to see how our national infrastructure representatives speak up for the realities of volunteer management. I think it's pretty clear that with a couple of notable exceptions (CSV and Timebank) they failed the test. 

Let’s hope they do better with whatever government we do get.

They couldn’t do much worse could they?