5 min read

Digging a little deeper

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“Always seek to know why you believe what you believe”

The importance of the above saying was drummed into me more than a decade ago by a good friend and one of my early mentors – and it has since become a personal mantra in every aspect of my life.

It drives me to better understand my spiritual self, my emotions, my work life, family connections and of course every element of volunteerism.

The power in this concept is that it drives you to dig deep and find a truth that makes some sense. It does not tell you what to believe (and from that perspective it is a personal concept), but it does require you to be able to justify and defend that belief. Of course, the unwritten power in this idea is that even when you reach that point of supposed ‘tranquility’, you’ll continue to be driven to search for other possibilities.

Now before you assume I am writing this hot topic from the security of a meditation yurt surrounded by new age crystals and Shirley McLaine self help books, I want to assure you that this notion of being able to justify our position is actually quite a well grounded and critical one for all of us working in the profession of volunteer program management.

All too often, as I speak to Volunteer Managers about some of the more ‘tricky’ spheres of our profession, I am met with resistance and an almost blind adherence to some supposedly non tangible ‘rules’ of volunteer engagement.

Here are some of the more common examples:

• Police checks should be completed for all volunteers and at all times

• Volunteers should never do the work of paid staff 

• Volunteers should never assist with interviewing and recruitment

• Volunteers save an organisation money

When raising these issues, the following is a fairly common scenario. The initial reaction is usually one in which defence is the first method of attack. Like a machine gun, instant and automatically fired responses such as “we’ve tried that” or “that wouldn’t work here” are pretty standard fare. Whether I am in a training session or simply sharing a coffee, I’ll usually try a secondary sweep at helping individuals to at least consider that things could be done differently, and sadly, all too often, there is a complete inability for VPM’s the world over to understand that there might be alternate ways of doing things.

Now don’t get me wrong, in many agencies there are specific ‘rules of engagement’ that add value to the positioning of the profession in that particular organisation. For example, using the title of Director of Volunteers in a hospital setting may help align the position with other department heads and have a huge benefit in how the role is perceived by others in the agency.

But that is not what I am discussing here. What I am attempting to make the point about is the fact that we need to develop ways that we can look beyond our own agency and accept and understand that those rules that may apply in our workplace may be quite different down the road. That is they are not necessarily a universal truth.

Why do I believe this to be such an important issue?

There are several reasons.

It weakens our profession – This line of thinking assumes there is only ever one set of skills and ‘rules’ required to coordinate volunteer programs, and that set of skills can complement volunteers in any setting. It suggests leading corporate volunteers in an urban environment can be done in the same way as leading voluntourists in a third world country or spontaneous volunteers at a disaster site. It effectively positions our profession as being static and not at all the dynamic movement it truly is.

It fails to acknowledge change – I regularly run a workshop called ‘So what is advanced anyway?’ in which I talk about the ten indicators a VPM is operating at a more advanced level. One of those ten indicators is what I refer to as ‘understanding the evolution’. That is, I believe that for leaders of volunteers to be truly effective, they need to understand that volunteerism is in fact evolving all the time. Having a defensive and narrow focus on the way we lead our teams does nothing more than guarantee you’ll always be playing catch up.

Treading water – An extension of always being in catch up mode is the fact that we ultimately find ourselves in a position where we are treading water. Waiting for the next trend to emerge before we act on it. Understanding and acknowledging the evolutionary nature of our craft allows us to instead swim ahead of the tide and reach the shore ahead of the pack. This in turn means we are positioning our agencies well to meet the needs of emerging volunteers.

It impedes transference and development – One of the biggest upshots in all of this is that if we indeed believe only one truth to be real, we do in fact take that with us to our next position and the one after that and so on. In some ways it narrows the gene pool of volunteer management. On the other hand, taking our core leadership abilities and not being impeded by these extraneous constraints and ‘rules’ we place on ourselves, and being open to alternate ways of leading volunteers, allows for creativity and the development of new and exciting ways of engaging our communities.

Now I fully understand this essay is a little ‘negative’, but it is too important a topic to sweep under the carpet. In fact, I wonder how many of you are feeling defensive just reading this far?

What I want to do however, is encourage our profession to learn to dig deeper, and to not immediately focus on ‘problems’ or ‘issues’ as they arise, but rather try and assess the underlying root causes of those things, so that they can be dealt with at a more substantial level.

In the perception training I do, I tell people that wherever there are problems associated with volunteer involvement, you can bet your bottom dollar there are perception issues at play somewhere under the surface. For instance, staff / volunteer relation problems are usually associated with perceptions that volunteers are going to take their jobs away and perceptions of mistrust can often be found when dealing with screening issues.

In the same way, there is huge value in looking under the surface at the ways we go about developing our programs or critically analysing new volunteering trends.

Too often we simply ‘react’ to a problem by trying to fix it rather than attempting to understand it.

Let’s take generation Y volunteers as an example.

Most volunteer managers by now broadly understand Generation Y and the fact that they are looking for shorter term episodic volunteer engagement. So, for many volunteer leaders the direct response is to ‘react’. They will simply create shorter term versions of their volunteer jobs and hope that may solve the issue. Boxes ticked, everyone happy!

The deeper thinker amongst us would instead seek to understand why short term volunteer work is important to this group. What are the values that drive this generation? How do they understand the way their efforts will impact our agency? What sort of roles (outside of them being short in nature) are going to be most critical? What sort of leadership will they want? Are the rewards they seek different from other volunteer groups?

The end result may indeed still be the creation of new and shorter term tasks, but they would be designed in such a way as to meet all of these additional criteria.

The ability to be analytical in our thinking and to do it from a perspective which is neutral, open and not threatened is indeed one of the greatest things we can bring to our professional selves and something I deeply want to encourage our profession to adopt.

Digging that little bit deeper may in fact unearth some gold!

So over to you

Do you agree with my sentiments?

If so, why do you think so many people working in our field are seemingly so defensive about these matters?

What prohibits us from being able to dig that little bit deeper and at the very least consider alternate possibilities and ways of doing things?