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:
- We have to take the limited resources we have and turn them into the gold our organisation needs.
- 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..
- 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.