Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Have we got our national standards right?

For UK Volunteers’ Week, The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled “What makes some people more likely to volunteer than others?” Within that piece, which mainly looked at volunteer motivation, Justin Davis Smith (former CEO of Volunteering England) made a really vital point. To quote directly from the article:

Ultimately, “it’s about constructing a really worthwhile, meaningful opportunity for people where they can make a difference,” Davis Smith says. “Don’t do that in isolation, do that with volunteers. They can help co-produce and co-construct the experience they engage in. Make it meaningful, make it attractive, make it worthwhile.”

That got me thinking. Do the national standards we have for working with volunteers encourage such an approach? Do they emphasise the importance of developing great volunteer roles and experiences? Do they promote co-production with volunteers? Do they ultimately make volunteering with out organisations meaningful, attractive and worthwhile?

Lots of countries have some form of national standards, either for the practice of volunteer leadership and management or for the organisational readiness to engage volunteers. For example:

This is of course just a sample and I’ve only picked one from each territory. The UK also has national competencies for volunteer management as well as the organisation Investing In Volunteers standard, and New Zealand has organisational best practice guidelines as well as competencies for Volunteer Managers. I’m sure there are more and please do let me know if there are any I’ve missed (you can leave a comment below).

Any effort to raise the standard of volunteer management and create a more pro-volunteering culture in volunteer involving organisations is a good thing. Yet what all of these have in common is an emphasis on processes, risk management and the like - the bureaucratic side of working with volunteers. Less prevalent is a consistent focus on our ability to work well with people, the skills and competencies that make someone a great leader of people, able to co-produce influence, negotiate and, well, lead.

Sure, some of the standards above contain elements of this people & leadership focus. But not all. And often this is given less prominence to the process stuff.

Now I understand that good processes should support meaningful and worthwhile volunteering opportunities. They should keep people safe and provide a context and structure to volunteering that enhances it’s value to the volunteer, the organisation and the beneficiary. But note that I said good processes, not simple processes.

All too often I come across people working with volunteers for whom the processes they work within (whether established by them or by the wider organisation) are a barrier to giving people great volunteer opportunities. Two examples:

  • Putting people off before they even start by requiring everyone to complete a long and detailed application form before they can start. In some instances this may be appropriate but do we need to do this for those just giving us the occasional hour of their time now and again?
  • An approach to risk that is about avoiding it all together rather than managing it. So family volunteering is dismissed because children could get hurt without any consideration that parents who volunteer with children continue to look our for their welfare just like at any other time and so the risk to an organisation is probably much lower than if they just involved the children without the parents.

As one volunteer I met once said, “Volunteer management has become about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

If our national standards consistently focus on processes do we reinforce this culture of volunteer management being a process business not a people one? Should they place a heavier and more consistent emphasis on people and leadership skills to balance or even counteract the danger of becoming a ‘computer says no’ profession?

I come back to Justin’s challenge that we must make volunteering meaningful, attractive and worthwhile. Take a look at your national standards for volunteer management. Does they emphasise the right things to rise to this challenge, or do they focus on things that will get in the way?

What do you think? Leave your comments below so we can discuss these questions further.

4 comments:

  1. The line that says it all for me...As one volunteer I met once said, “Volunteer management has become about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

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    1. Yes, that line has stuck with me for the last few years. It sadly speaks volumes about where some of our profession has gone in striving for professional credibility.

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  2. This line struck me "Less prevalent is a consistent focus on our ability to work well with people, the skills and competencies that make someone a great leader of people, able to co-produce influence, negotiate and, well, lead."
    All too often what most conferences and training focus on seem to be on processes and not leadership. And many in volunteer management have no other means to get leadership training that at national or state conferences. Perhaps national standards should highlight leadership more.
    Meghan Kaskoun, Aronoff Center for the Arts, Cincinnati OH, USA

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  3. Here here Megan. Thank you for the comment.

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