Monday, 25 July 2011

Why I write and why I want to encourage you to write too

One of my aims when I started Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd was to write more.  For many years I'd been working in organisations where my workload meant that I didn't have the time to do any writing about volunteerism or volunteer management or any of the other topics I felt moved to comment on publicly.  It sometimes became difficult as my views didn't always agree with organisational policy and, if expressed, could have caused problems for colleagues working to support and influence others.

Since starting the business in April 2011 I have written numerous blog posts as well as a guest Hot Topic for OzVPM, an article for ArtsProfessional Magazine online, a piece for and a regular blog on volunteering for Third sector magazine.  I've also started work editing a new edition of the Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (formerly Essential Volunteer Management) for the Directory of Social Change and the first UK edition of Susan Ellis' popular book, From The Top Down.

But why do I write and, more importantly, why should you?  Why should leaders of volunteer programmes put finger to keyboard and share their views, opinions, insights and thoughts on volunteerism?

Four reasons why I write

  1. To contribute to and build up the field.  For most of my writing I don't get paid; I do it as a volunteer.  Why?  Because I am passionate about volunteering and the invaluable work of those who lead and manage volunteers and volunteer programmes.  When I started in the field I benefited hugely from the writings of others, leaders like Susan Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch, Jayne Cravens, Ivan Scheier and Linda Graff (to name just some).  Now I can share the insights and experience I have developed since 1994 and contribute to the field myself.  “Pay it forward” in action.
  2. From personal experience, I know how busy the day-to-day life of a volunteer manager can be.  It can be an isolating role with demands mounting up daily from volunteers, colleagues, managers, prospective volunteers and organisational leaders.  Consequently it can be hard to carve out thinking time during the day - time to muse on some of the big issues facing volunteerism.  And if we do manage to carve out the time, what are the big issues?

    Through this blog I hope to provide some food for thought for colleagues in the volunteering field.  I hope I am writing on issues relevant to people in their busy professional lives.  I hope that what I say might ultimately lead to some action that helps volunteers to have a more rewarding experience as they make important contributions to organisations' missions and society's needs.

  3. One of the things I think we lack in the UK is people who speak out when issues come up that affect volunteering and volunteer management.  That list of names in point one is made up of people who are all outside the UK.  Our peak bodies like Volunteering England have a key role to play for sure but they sometimes have to hold back because of wider concerns and other forms of lobbying and influence that they are engaged in.  Similarly the Association of Volunteer Managers are great advocates for volunteer management but they are a small number of dedicated professionals who can't speak up on everything.  So I see myself as having a role to play, free from the constraints of political influence, funding or inter-agency politics.  That's why I write posts about stupid ministerial statements or union leader ignorance or ridiculous expectations placed on volunteer managers.

    Of course I hope what I say helps but, no matter what, at least someone is saying it (and I also provide a forum to allow you to say it with me!).

  4. Whilst my main motivation for writing is to give back to and build up our field, I also do it because it can be great marketing for my business.  I say this honestly and unapologetically.  Having taken the risk to go out on my own makes it important to be known so that I can earn a living and keep on speaking out.  As of today, there have been over 3,500 views of my blog from people in more than ten different countries.  I hope the people who read what I write like it, feel challenged or inspired by it and so might hire me to work with them as a consultant, a trainer or a speaker at their events.  Ultimately, someone will hire me because of my publicly shared opinions, which becomes an upward spiral:  I will continue to experience the real-world issues of our field through my clients, write more, and stay on potential clients’ minds.

Four reasons why you should write

  1. Writing things down forces you to think about what you want to say.  Whether it is sharing an insight you have, a response to a news story, or something you feel passionate about, the process of getting what's in your brain down into written form forces you to have an opinion.  Not enough people working in volunteer leadership and management roles have opinions about the strategic and operational the field faces.  And If they do have an opinion, they often don't share it for others to read and think about.

    Just to clarify – I am not urging you to go write a book – although perhaps you might.   But what about replying a blog post (like this one!) or to an article in an online magazine (as you are increasingly invited to do)?
  2. Which leads me to my second reason more people in the volunteerism field (you!) should write.  Once you have an opinion and you share, it you open the possibility for others to engage in debate over your views.  Such debate forces us all to think, to sharpen our understanding, challenge our perspectives and advance the theory of volunteer leadership and management (and ultimately the practice, for there is nothing as practical as a good theory).  My own views on working with volunteers have developed significantly (and continue to do so) from reading and discussing the thoughts and insights of others. I haven't always agreed with them but I have always learnt something.

    What could you help others learn today?
  3. Which brings me to my third reason why you should write.  I want to know what you think.  So do others.  It isn't just the 'leaders' in volunteerism from whom we can learn.  All of us have something to share.  That's why I started UKVPMs over ten years ago:  as a forum for people in the trenches of volunteer management to ask questions, share tips and ideas and advance our collective knowledge.  That's why I got involved in co-editing the free Turn Your Organisation Into A Volunteer Magnet eBook, in which forty people from across the field of volunteer management around the globe (contributions come from Australia, Britain, Canada, Italy, New Zealand and the USA) share what they have learned about making your organisation attractive to volunteers.  You have fabulous treasures of knowledge others could benefit from, so please share.
  4. My final reason for encouraging you to write is that it has never been easier to share your ideas and insights.  Blogging, social media and the overall growth and development of the web have revolutionised the provision of and access to information on volunteerism.  You can even tweet your thoughts in under 140 characters,  so there is no longer as excuse for not having the time to comment.

    Susan Ellis has written that the web means no volunteer manager should ever feel isolated again.  This is true, but the more people write and contribute to the ever growing library of knowledge online, the richer we all become.

    Friday, 15 July 2011

    Observations on an advert for a volunteer manager

    Whilst catching up with my email etc. after a couple of days away I this morning noticed this advert for a volunteer manager post at a UK charity.
    Purpose: To grow and co-ordinate voluntary activity across the organisation through the delivery of professionally central services, resources and tools for staff, volunteers, projects,  patient and fundraising groups and partner organisations; the role will involve some direct supervision of volunteers 

    Reporting to: Chief Executive  
    Responsible for:
    Key relationships - Internal: Heads of Department, Development Co-ordinators; Community Fundraisers; other staff and volunteers. 
    Key relationships - External: 
    Volunteering organisations and brokerage agencies in England, Scotland and Wales; healthcare professionals; relevant health and voluntary sector groups and alliances

    Key Result Areas  
    1. Develop a volunteering strategy within the framework of the organisations Business and Departmental Plans
    2. Ensure that policies, standards and best practice for effective volunteer management are in place for recruiting ,inducting, supporting, training, recognising and promoting volunteers

    3. Provide expert advice, support and coaching to staff, volunteers and trustees on all matters relating to volunteering 
    4. Generate and maintain up-to-date information on national/regional/local volunteering roles, and volunteer projects and pilots, based on the needs of the charity and its beneficiaries; 
    5. Research, recommend and develop new volunteering roles and projects 

    6. Broaden the range of people involved in voluntary work at the organisation 
    7. Ensure training and personal development opportunities for volunteers are provided to meet the charity’s and volunteers’ needs 
    8. Lead or support others in volunteer recruitment and ensure volunteers are appropriately matched, inducted and trained 
    9. Encourage colleagues to think laterally to foster understanding of the value of the volunteer contribution and to build growth and commitment 
    10. Monitor and report progress against agreed voluntary activity in key areas; produce a monthly report 
    11. Attend relevant external voluntary and health sector meetings 
    12. Manage a volunteering budget and ensure offer of volunteer expenses; 
    13. Undertake any other reasonable duties compatible with the post
    In some ways this a good role.  Not many volunteer managers report to the CEO, although many wish they did.  They're not just looking for someone to manage the volunteers but to work with colleagues at all levels across the organisation to enhance the contribution volunteers make to the mission.  Furthermore they want someone who can engage with volunteerism networks and with professionals in the field the organisation works in.
    In summary there seems to be some committment to volunteering at this organisation and investment being put into leadership and management to support this.
    Or is there?
    The hours advertised for this post are 17.5 a week (assuming a usual working week of 35 hours that 2.5 days a week).  That's a huge job in such a small amount of time.
    And the pay?  £21,000 pro rata, or £10,500 a year.  
    That's well below what I would expect for a role that is as critical to the organisation as this one seems to be.  
    Compare that with a Head of Fundraising post the same organisation advertised for earlier this year.  Also reporting to the CEO this was full time and paid...£40,000. 
    My point?
    I know the labour market is tough at the moment.  
    I know the financial environment is tough at the moment and is probably not going to get better any time soon.
    But when are organisations like this one going to wake up to the fact that the effective leadership, engagement and deployment of volunteers is something that demands proper investment and is at least as important (if not more so in the current economic climate) as fundraising.

    Tuesday, 12 July 2011

    An open letter to Bob Crow

    Dear Bob,

    Thanks for sharing your views on volunteering in response to London Underground's proposals to engage volunteers in information giving roles during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games.

    I'd just like to make three quick points in response to the comments the BBC reported you as having made.

    First, according to the BBC you said, "Using unqualified, non-professional, non-trained staff at key crowd control pressure points is a recipe for disaster with potentially lethal consequences. With the Tube already at bursting point, and with millions more expected for the Olympics, the last thing needed is wholly unprepared volunteers controlling hundreds of thousands of passengers through stations like Oxford Circus or Stratford."

    Aside from the fact that London Underground seem to fundamentally disagree with your interpretation of what volunteers are being asked to do, why have you assumed that the volunteers will be unqualified, unprofessional, untrained and unprepared?  Nobody who truly understands volunteering would ever put volunteers into such a role who were so ill equipped.  I sincerely doubt that London Underground are expecting to just round up random people off the street for these roles.

    Sadly, you seem to have fallen into the trap of assuming that because they don't get paid volunteers are incompetent, ineffective people unsuitable for responsible roles.  Let's hope that isn't the case if you ever need rescuing at sea and the RNLI send a lifeboat to save you, or if you ever feel the need to talk to someone and call the Samaritans, or have cause to rely upon the services of a Special Constable.  That's just three roles performed by qualified, professional, trained and prepared volunteers.  There are thousands if not millions more, all essential to the fabric of society.

    Second, not only do you hold inaccurate stereotypes about volunteers you seem to have forgotten that the union movement is reliant on volunteers?  Or did you mean to suggest RMT members who play key roles within the union representing your members were unqualified, unprofessional, untrained and unprepared to do their work?

    Finally, I would urge you to look at the Charter for Strengthening Relations Between Paid Staff and Volunteers, developed by Volunteering England and the Trades Union Congress.  This document sets out the key principles and guidelines to be followed when volunteers are engaged in unionised environments.  As a member of the TUC the RMT will have endorsed this so can I suggest you follow its principles before resorting to sharing your inaccurate views of volunteers and scaremongering through the media.

    Yours sincerely,

    Rob Jackson
    Director, Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd and active volunteer

    Monday, 4 July 2011

    Why Francis Maude is wrong and concerns about the sector response

    Seventeen years ago today (4th July 1994) I started work.  I didn't know it at the time but the job I took at the University of Surrey was a volunteer management role, recruiting a placing undergraduates as classroom assistants in local schools.  The experience I gained in that role led me on to subsequent jobs in volunteer leadership and management and to a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding career in their field.

    So it is perhaps no surprise that I was intrigued by Francis Maude's comments last week that people made redundant from the public sector should, with little or no training, be deployed into the voluntary sector to manage volunteers because "There is nothing more frustrating than seeing charities with too many volunteers they can't use because there is no one to manage them".

    The comments beneath Third Sector's article do a good job of highlighting the stupidity of Mr Maude's suggestion - about the only thing he got right was the need to invest in more volunteer management support for organisations - but I want to make just five points myself.

    First, Mr Maude seems to believe that volunteers work in the voluntary sector.  Many do, but large numbers are also involved in the public sector too.  So why does he propose these people only help charities?  One might argue that charities are more used to working with volunteers than many in the public sector and so it is the latter that need more help, not the former.

    Second, why would public sector workers automatically make good volunteer managers?  What uniquely qualifies people from the public sector to come into charities with little training or orientation and be able to effectively lead and engage volunteers?

    Third, let's just suppose for a moment that Mr Maude's idea becomes reality.  Would this not lead to the displacement from employment of many skilled volunteer management professionals as organisations think they can have the work done for 'free' by Maude's army of redundant public sector volunteers?  Perhaps those volunteer managers can go on to one of the many wonderful private sector jobs currently being created, skilled as they are at asking "would you like fries with that?".  Or is job displacement from the voluntary sector not a concern of the government, fixated as they seem to be (the media even more so) on the public and private sectors as places of employment.

    Fourth, aside from displaying his ignorance and lack of understanding on a number of issues, Mr Maude seems to have it all wrong about volunteer managers.  His proposal suggests that organisations could engage redundant public sector workers to manage the large numbers of volunteers those organisations lack the capacity to involve.  But that isn't how the model of volunteer management tends to work these days.  Having the volunteer manager directly managing the volunteers would be like having the HR manager directly managing the paid staff. 

    Instead, today's volunteer manager commonly plays a supportive role to other staff and volunteers who provide the line management support and capacity that enables an organisation to effectively engage volunteers.  The volunteer manager is a skilled and knowledgeable expert, adept at influencing, supporting, inspiring, leading, engaging and motivating volunteers, employees, peers, managers, the community and many others in the fulfilment of their organisations mission. 

    And that leads me to my fifth and final observation about Mr Maude's comments.  Volunteer management is an increasingly skilled task that requires competence in perhaps a wider, more diverse and more essential range of skills and abilities than almost any other job.  That's why Skills Third Sector recently published an excellent position paper on why volunteer management requires specific skills.   Its is in part why I recently argued that volunteer leadership and engagement is an essential yet under-developed skill the voluntary sector needs to invest in for the future.  And the HandsOn Network in the US have recently spoken about effective volunteer engagement being a collective responsibility of all staff too.

    To suggest anyone can just walk in and do a good job of managing volunteers effectively not only shows gross ignorance of the role but is hugely insulting to me and others like me who have built a career in the field through hard work and dedication to the causes we've worked for and to our own professional development.

    As you can tell, I feel strongly about this issue.  That's why I have limited my post to just five issues or I could have gone on for hours!  That and the desire to not repeat the excellent points made elsewhere by others such as the comments beneath the Third Sector article.

    However, I do want to make one final observation in conclusion.  

    As I write this post nearly three working days have passed since Mr Maude's comments were reported.  In that time I have not seen one single comment or response from Volunteering England, the Association of Volunteer Managers or any of the other bodies who purport to represent volunteer managers.  

    I may simply have missed such a comment (I was away volunteering in Yorkshire last week) so I would be happy for people to share links to such statements in defence of volunteer management by posting a comment in response to this blog.

    However, if, as I suspect, not one single statement supporting volunteer management has been made by any of the key representative bodies, publicly or privately, then some serious questions need to be asked of their ability to stand up for volunteer managers when they come under attack like this.

    What do you think of Mr Maude's comments?  Is it right that bodies like VE and AVM have apparently stayed silent?  What would you like to say on this issue?  Please leave your comments below.