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.]

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Gas to Go

This time out we're featuring a guest post from colleague Martin J Cowling, CEO of People First -Total Solutions.  Martin and Rob will be training together in the UK later this year.

Walking through a local park  yesterday, I passed a group of guys engaged in football training (Aussie Rules of course!). Calling out instructions, encouragements and ribbings, they were focussed on improving their skills, coordination and success. To do this, they were giving up their spare time to stand on a cold night on an outside oval.

I think its universally agreed and understood that to be top of any sporting field, we need to practice and train. When it comes to volunteering there seems to be two sets of extremes when it comes to training volunteers for a task.

In the first scenario, the volunteers are given no training, they are just propelled into a task. Or the volunteers themselves resist any training citing “they have been doing it for years” or “'you can’t teach an old dog new tricks". 


In our research at People First - Total Solutions, we have found 43% of volunteers have received no initial training to do the job and we've seen it all.  For example: the person who turns up to their first ever Annual General Meeting of a club, scout troop or sporting group and finds they are elected, co opted, or nominated as Club treasurer. At the end of the meeting,  the existing treasurer gives them a pile of boxes and papers and says “good luck”. That new treasurer spends six months working out how to do the job and then gets berated at a committee meeting for forgetting something they knew nothing about.

In contrast, the second scenario insists every volunteer has to undergo weeks or months of training. We tend to recruit people with a whole bunch of different skills and then train them all together in the same way at the same time. A waste of time for some and life changing for others. Those who get frustrated may choose to discontinue and not recommend your programme to others. 


In my trainings I talk about one group which required volunteers to take a 12 month course to work in a tourist information centre! Other groups made retired school teachers attend weeks of training on teaching skills before they can teach English or insisted social workers volunteering to be phone counsellors do courses on basic counselling techniques. One civil defence group I know of put a doctor through their first aid course before he could volunteer for the group!

Somewhere between these two extremes is a happy medium. I have yet to find a sufficient number of volunteer groups who have found it yet.

There are three sets of skills and trainings, we want to consider for volunteers.


1 - General Skills and knowledge
These are what you want every volunteer to have before they start volunteering. These include understanding the mission and direction of the organisation, fundamental information for working there and emergency procedures. If necessary, these can be distilled down to 15 minutes. There is no excuse for not having something in place!

2 - Applied Skills
These are the skills people need to do a particular role. If they already have them in their workplace or background we don't need to train people again. If they are missing something or you change something, then give them that specific applied training.

3 - Specialised skills
Some volunteer roles indeed require very specialised skills. Rather than train in them, we need to find people who already possess those skills up front.

Breaking down your role skills into GAS: General, Applied  and Specialised will give you the fuel you need to make your volunteer programme succeed through relevant training.



Martin J Cowling, 
Tel -  020 8133 7991