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4 min read

BULA…the art of connecting!

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Bula!

I originally wrote this blog while on holiday on the tropical paradise that is Fiji. If you have never been, you need to find a way to get here and experience the amazing Fijian food, weather and hospitality.

It’s the latter that I want to make the focus here, as one of the most endearing elements of Fijian culture is their gracious acceptance of everyone and their genuine happiness to welcome you to their Islands.

‘Bula’ is used universally to say hello or welcome in Fiji and everyone that you meet will greet you with this hearty expression. It is not put on for the tourists and is not a forced greeting which the locals feel they must comply with. It’s a genuine “hello”, and it makes you feel good!

Coming from a more western culture, one thing that really dawned on me during my vacation was the fact that we have really lost the art of communication and more importantly being able to connect with others around us. Even as I wandered around some of the resorts on Fiji, other westerners that I would come across would pass with their eyes downcast and barely a murmur of hello if you were lucky.

The most significant example of this that I ever witnessed occurred while I was attending the world volunteering conference in Singapore last year. As a friend and I emerged from a jam packed subway train in peak hour, and made our way amongst the thronging masses on their way to work, I suddenly realised that something was odd. No one was speaking to each other. No one! Instead all the other commuters were plugged into silent electronic devices, locked away in worlds that were miles away from the person walking right next door to them. It truly was a surreal moment!

So how does this all tie into volunteer management?

Well, I believe that many volunteer programs have lost (or risk losing) the art of effective communication and connection with their volunteers, as we work in environments which continue to demand more and more administrative functioning within the workplace.

Historically, the role of volunteer leadership emerged as one which required a focus on the personal side of working with volunteers. I distinctly remember taking on my first volunteer program back in the late 80’s and the handover I received on my first day from the outgoing Coordinator.

It consisted of very personal instructions about how to get the most out of each and every volunteer. Instruction like “That is Ken and he will expect you to sit down and have a coffee with you when he arrives on a Tuesday morning” or “Mary really loves her handicraft and will often bring in samples to show off to you”. In short, it was all about the PEOPLE and volunteer leadership was at that time very much a ‘people profession’

As time went on, new and wonderful terms such as ‘liability’, ‘litigation’ and ‘risk management’ found their way into volunteer management vocabulary and organisations stopped employing volunteer managers strong on people skills and started to seek out volunteer leaders with a much stronger skill set based in administration, policy development and human resource management.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that there has been anything wrong with this evolution, for the most part it was necessary and important for the effective development of volunteering and the protection of volunteers. However, I have spoken for many years about the inherent risk that this evolution has posed for the field to become less focused on people and more focused on paper!

I’m often reminded of a piece of artwork which my stepbrother (and artist) David Archer* created which illustrates this concern beautifully. Dave creates ‘automata’ – pieces of artwork which move as you wind handles and push buttons. This particular piece features a large industrial looking box which has running through the middle of it a conveyor belt. On the left of the box, the conveyor belt enters the box and on the belt are small figures of artists, chefs, athletes and other gifted individuals. As the conveyor belt emerges from the industrial box on the right, it is filled with a line of robots – all exactly the same.

For Dave this is a statement about industrialisation, but for me it is a great visualisation about what we can sometimes do with our volunteer teams. We get so caught up in ‘processing them’ that we forget that they come to us with a wide array of natural skills, talents, knowledge and abilities.

So a reminder – as leaders of volunteers we are always working in a people profession FIRST and we have a responsibility to continue to find ways to connect with people on a daily basis.

There are many strategies for achieving this, but they all revolve first and foremost around us making time amongst the administrative tasks, to leave our desks and connect with our volunteers. One much talked about technique for achieving this is what is simply referred to as ‘management by walking around’. Quite simply, make time each day (in your diary) to wander around and say hi to your team, listen to any concerns and make notes about things that require your attention.

You’ll be amazed at what a difference this makes, how easy it is and how much more visible you will appear to your volunteers.

The other thing we often forget to do in the course of a busy workload is to say a simple thank you to our volunteers.

In the movie Hitchcock, Will Smith plays a disheveled superhero with amazing powers to do good, but he has become so caught up in simply ‘getting the job done’ that he has forgotten the real purpose of using his superhero powers.

Throughout the course of the movie he is re-trained to be more socially acceptable and amongst other things, he is reminded time and time again to say “good job” to the police and others who are often at the scene of a crime before he arrives.

So as leaders of volunteers let us never to forget to say ‘Bula’ to our volunteers. To leave our desk, to walk amongst our teams and to make sure that each and every volunteer feels that they are truly valued members of your team.

Now if you’ll excuse me I am off for another cocktail!

Vinaka! And please share your thoughts further below.

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