Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Positive deviants & the importance of effective volunteer management

Three papers that have come across my desk in recent months that have all been sitting in a folder for me to blog on.  As I re-read them recently common themes cam through that chime with one of the issues I'm passionate about at the moment - the need for voluntary sector leadership to adapt from funding driven models of mission fulfilment to embracing a wider range of community resources available.

In this post I want to outline the key findings from those three papers I have recently re-read and suggest what they might be telling us about the way organisations need to respond to the new reality of more scarce financial resources.

First up, is a December 2009 report from TCC Group, published for the USA's Reimagining Service initiative and with perhaps one of the best titles I've ever come across, Positive Deviants in Volunteerism and Service. The report summarises findings from work done using TCC Group's Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT) which examined the effectiveness of non-profit organisations against four core competencies.  The work sought to find links between effective volunteer management and effective organisations, in other words those that positively deviated from the average/norm.

Key findings from the report were that:

  • When organisations engage and manage any number of volunteers well, they are significantly better led and managed than organisations not engaging volunteers or engaging them but not managing them well.

  • Of the eight volunteer management behaviours explored, there was plenty of scope for improvement, with organisations especially needing to focus balance the involvement of skilled and unskilled volunteers, defining roles for volunteers and resourcing volunteers to do their work.

  • There appeared to be a tipping point of engaging ten volunteers.  Organisations that involve more than ten volunteers, regardless of whether they have figured out all of the best practices necessary to manage those volunteers, have just as much capacity as other organisations that don't involve volunteer but at about half the cost.

Second, in February 2011, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) published their report into The Status of Minnesota's Volunteer Programs in a Shifting Environment 2010.  This report followed a similar study the previous year and so was able to draw some conclusions as to the effects of organisations' responses to the financial crisis in regard to volunteer management.

The MAVA report concluded that:

  • Organisations were increasingly reliant on volunteers who were having a real impact during tough financial times as organisations adapt to the new reality.

  • Cutting staff for volunteer programmes results in fewer volunteers and less service.

  • It is unrealistic to expect continued growth through volunteers without increased investment in management and support for volunteers.

Finally, at the end of May 2011, Skills Third Sector issued a position statement on why volunteer management requires specific skills.  The statement succinctly outlines how volunteer management differs from the management of paid staff and summarises some of the key skills effective volunteer managers must have.  The authors conclude by saying that:

"...the evidence from research is that investing in volunteer managers is the best way to raise the skills and opportunities for all volunteers in the voluntary sector. Not understanding the different skills needed to manage volunteers and how they differ from managing paid staff, can lead to poor quality services for the people who use the services [and] poor volunteering experiences for volunteers."

To summarise:

  • Organisations that manage volunteers well are better led and managed overall than organisations that don't involve volunteers or don't manage them effectively.

  • If an organisation involves more than ten volunteers, they seem to have as much capacity as organisations that don't involve volunteers at just shy of half the cost.

  • Increased volunteer involvement can be an effective way for organisations to continue to deliver and develop effective client services in tough economic times.

  • Conversely, cutting resources for volunteer programmes results in fewer volunteers and reduced service provision.

  • Investing in volunteer managers is the best way to raise the skills and opportunities for all volunteers.

  • Failure to understand the distinctive nature of volunteer management can lead to a poor experience for volunteers and poor quality services for clients.

So, what is all this telling us?

I suggest that it is saying we need to rethink our response to the challenging times we find ourselves in.  

Many organisations seem to be increasingly fixated on generating more income from different sources to replace the money being lost due to cuts and tightened personal finances.  They continue to invest increasing amounts of money to find ways of getting more golden eggs from a dying goose.  Sometimes this investment comes as a result of cutting resources to the volunteer programme.

This dependence on money to supply the resources to enable voluntary sector organisations to achieve their missions has to change.  If it doesn't then organisations will go one of three ways: 

  1. close down;

  2. chase funding and so risk mission drift;

  3. compromise or limit their mission and vision because they don't have the money to do what we want.

But things can be different.  The sector needs to think differently and get wise to how they can make best use of non-cash resources, investing the money they do have to maximise the impact of and value rather than chasing an ever shrinking post of money.  

This means opening up to the potential that well led and managed volunteers can bring to the way we work.  This means being wise to the way the world is changing and the opportunities this presents for donated time if organisations are smart enough to adapt to the new realities.

I think many leaders are adrift, unsure of how to respond to the challenges they currently face because the environment has changed so dramatically from what they know.  These leaders need to become more aware of the kind of findings summarised above and be encouraged to apply the learning to their organisations.  Volunteer managers have a key role to play in this.

Now is the time to step forward, to educate and support your CEOs and their senior management colleagues to change.

Have you done this, supporting senior managers to reduce your organisation's dependency on cash and embrace non-cash resources like volunteers?  How did you do it?  What role did you play?  What advice do you have for others?

Do you think this is step beyond your role?  Why?  What support might you need to play such a change advocate role?

Please share your thoughts below.  

[See also my Third Sector blog from June 2011 which looks at this issue from a voluntary sector leadership perspective.]


  1. Thanks so much for culling out the best items from these 3 reports, Rob! You are totally correct in advocating for moving away from a "funding" mindset to a "resources" perspective -- and that leaders of volunteer involvement can be a great asset in this transformation. I look forward to seeing the responses to this posting.

    As you know, we have just opened a new informational Web site about "Everyone Ready," in which we devote an entire area to what we call "Why It Matters": http://www.everyoneready.info/content/why-it-matters. The material there is offered to our colleagues as "ammunition" to educate up with their executives. I will be contacting you off-line to discuss adding this great blog post to that area, too.

    Thanks again!

  2. I don’t wish to be a wet fish, because the MAVA report does have some useful messages, but all to often volunteering research does seem to skim the surface without really drilling down to produce some robust conclusions.

    For example it says 'it is unrealistic to increase reliance on volunteers without investing more resources'. As a general statement I would agree with it but I don’t think the evidence justifies it as a conclusion. For starters this presumes the organisations who responded to the survey actually make the best use of the resources they currently have. To put a different spin on it maybe the organisations, having adopted some of the new volunteering practices the report mentions, realise they weren’t making the best use of their resources and so can increase reliance on volunteers without investing more resources.

    What we lack is proper research that actually measures the causative impact of some of these changes on the impact of volunteers on clients.

    Where is the evidence, for example, that says investing in skilled, trained and supported volunteer managers improves outcomes for clients? (And this is presupposing we know what a ‘skilled’ volunteer manager looks like). At best we have piecemeal evidence that suggests good volunteer management has a beneficial effect on volunteers and volunteer numbers, but too often we have the missing link of the impact on clients.

    Because if we want to change organisational attitudes to volunteering and volunteer management and leadership then we need to be sure that the arguments we use are built on solid ground.

    We still have this attitude that volunteering is a ‘good’ thing so anything that improves volunteering must therefore also be a good thing. Volunteering as an act itself has many positives, but the delivery of volunteering is invariably done by organisations who are concerned by the impact on clients not by the inherent goodness of volunteering. (As an aside, where is the debate about the dark side of ‘volunteering’? – we seem to be very willing to sweep that under the carpet and forget about it)

    I shall end on a positive note because I think the MAVA report does deserve it – the 17 strategies suggested I think is very good starting point for organisations to work though if they want to improve their volunteering programme. In themselves none of them are new but I don’t think I’ve seen them in list like this before and would be interested in how orgs implement they and what benefits they see.

    I gave a talk a few months ago where I talked about some of the things mentioned. During the Q&A I copped a load of flak for saying stuff that they said was old hat and that they already do. So I asked for some case studies to show other orgs who weren’t as advanced in their thinking as clearly the audience were. How many did I get? Not one. Suddenly it was all back-tracking ‘Well, err, we don’t do precisely do that..’ etc. There’s a lot of talking the talk without walking the walk.