Superhero Volunteer Management part one: Why we should be recruiting superheroes

Superhero Volunteer Management part one: Why we should be recruiting superheroes

I am really pleased to give my latest blog post over to guest contributor, Carol Carbine. I’ve know Carol for many years and you are in for a real treat with her first ever article. Oh, and in case you were wondering, part two will be published here in late September.


Ok, before I start, there are hundreds of articles out there about the psychology of superheroes: what superheroes can teach us about marketing; what your kids can learn from superheroes; leadership lessons from superheroes; what superheroes can teach us about investment strategy; the list is endless.

So you may be asking yourself why I feel the need to talk about volunteer management and superheroes. Simple answer, why not? I mean let’s look at it from the perspective of the individuals we are trying to recruit into volunteering – who hasn’t wanted to feel like a superhero at some stage in their life (even if you were only 6 years old)?

There are some brilliant volunteer managers but many of us still worry about being too demanding, asking too much of our volunteers and managing too rigorously. After all, we’re not paying these people are we so we shouldn’t expect too much? Sadly this means that all too often the results of our recruitment efforts don’t meet our aspirations and we end up with volunteers that are OK, but not brilliant. More sidekick then superhero.

So let’s time travel back to 2012. If I’m honest like many, I didn’t know what to expect from the London Olympics volunteer programme. At the time we heard about teething troubles recruiting (and retaining) great volunteering specialists, the fact that McDonalds were being brought in to manage volunteer recruitment and induction, plus the tens of thousands of people who pre-registered their interest and didn’t get a reply – yes, I was one of them. And, if we are really honest, loads of us thought that Danny Boyle seemed a bit of an odd choice to direct the opening ceremony.

How wrong were we!

Universally when you talk to people who became ‘Games Makers’ (they never think of themselves as ‘only a volunteer’) the immense passion, pride and sense of having been part of something extra special shines through, even six years later.

A while ago I had the opportunity to talk in detail to some of the Pandemonium Drummers who featured at the 2012 opening ceremony about the rigorous recruitment process they went through. This process led to a genuine pride that they were the best of the best – the high expectations, absolute secrecy, attendance at an extremely high percentage of practise / rehearsals or you didn’t get to perform on the day, and so on.

Ok so back to superheroes, think of your favourite superhero what is it that makes them super? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • A high level of passion for the cause that inspires them to take action
  • Great skills and talents
  • A clear vision of what needs to be done
  • A clear identity – who they are, what they stand for and usually a natty costume!
  • A willingness to tackle challenges head on, learn from their mistakes and keep going till the job is done

Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want people like this as volunteers?

Before anyone starts complaining about my high standards radically reducing the pool of available people, being elitist or not being inclusive, remember that superheroes come in all shapes and sizes from Ant Man to Ego (who’s a living planet) and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds including an ex-convict, an orphaned college student and a millionaire philanthropist. They also include a green one, a blue one, a blind one, a deaf one, a couple of wheelchair users, one who appears to have been genetically imprinted by a cat and a living tree!

So next time you’re recruiting you might just want to raise the bar and consider what super talents your superheroes need to have. Or then again you might just want to do it the same way you have always done it and settle for sidekicks.

PS. According to the Oxford English dictionary in 1899 when the word ‘superhero’ first appeared it meant ‘an exceptionally skilful or successful person’.


What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you’d like to contact Carol direct, here are her details:

Website: www.carolcarbine.consulting

Email: carolcarbine@icloud.com

Twitter: @carolcarbine

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Do we get paid what we deserve?

Do we get paid what we deserve?

In my last article I highlighted the excellent study into job equity for volunteer engagement professionals that was published earlier this year by the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA). One of the findings highlighted was that, “Salaries for volunteering staff are lower in most organisations than those of the other posts examined.” Which got me thinking – do volunteer managers get paid what we deserve?

I was partly inspired by this thought provoking article by Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs magazine. Robinson makes many excellent and challenging points. Here’s a section from early on that I think sets the terms of the debate quite well:

”When we examine how our notions of “deservingness” match real-world salaries, it’s obvious that they don’t really correlate at all. People say, for example, that you should be rewarded if you work hard and make sacrifices. In practice, the hardest-working people (such as dishwashers and agricultural laborers) are often paid the least. As for “sacrifice,” we might think that someone who takes a dangerous and unpleasant job should be paid more than the person who takes a cushy and pleasant job. But the list of most dangerous jobs quickly shows us that the jobs most likely to get you killed aren’t very likely to pay you well for it. On the other hand, being a successful Hollywood actor seems like a lot of fun and you get paid a damn fortune. Hard work and risk-taking often go unrewarded, then, even when people are performing incredibly socially useful jobs. We can offer factual explanations for why this occurs (there are a million roofers and one Bryan Cranston), but “supply and demand” is a description of a phenomenon and not a moral theory for why it is just.”

Put simply, how difficult or valuable a job is has no bearing in reality as to how much we get paid. How much sacrifice we make in pursuit of our goals, how creative we are, how innovative we strive to be, none of that relates to the amount in our pay packet. Robinson argues that all those characteristics are of moral, not economic, value, and that these two measures rarely correlate.

Is this part of the cause our frustration? Leaders of volunteers see our work as very valuable to our organisations, but that value is moral in nature and not economic. This is, perhaps, why CEOs spoken to by MAVA said Volunteer Managers need to better demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) of volunteer engagement to increase our value to our organisations. Yet, without getting into a discussion of how we do, could and should measure the value of volunteer contributions, would demonstrating the ROI of volunteering to our employers actually result in us being paid what we feel we deserve?

What would being paid what we deserve look like? If we achieved that, would we continue to feel satisfied over time? Considering some simple metrics, what about if we recruited more volunteers? Would that mean we feel we deserve more? Or if we experienced higher volunteer turnover? Would we feel we deserve less? More importantly, would our employers feel we are worth less and feel justified in paying us less?

Here’s Nathan J. Robinson again:

“Since nobody wants to think they are paid more than they are “worth,” we assume that pay is automatically the measure of worthiness, without examining what the implications of that are or whether that conception of worthiness is coherent and meaningful.”

”…even if we did pay people on the basis of their “value to others,” we are still assuming that economic value is the correct measurement of human value for the purposes of determining living standards.”

Interesting. Are we buying into a concept of valuing things on purely economic terms when we spend so much of our professional lives arguing that money isn’t the best measurement? Think about it: we say the work of volunteers shouldn’t only be valued in economic terms and stress instead the social value of volunteering (wellbeing, health, reduced isolation etc.); and of course we argue that the people who get paid nothing in our organisations should be valued the most. So, if unpaid volunteers should be valued more than paid staff, what authority to do we have to claim that higher pay should be the measure of our status?

I’m not saying there are any easy answers to this. As you can see, I’m posing more questions that I am suggesting solutions. But that’s the point – we need to discuss all of this rather than complaining that we don’t get paid what we deserve.

To me, Volunteer Manager pay is part of a wider discussion about our professional standing. We need to be clear about what we mean when we talk of being a profession, what our end goal is. These are issues I’ve made before – take a look at my 2014 article, “Is our destination clear?”, and it’s follow up, “Unintended Consequences”.

Perhaps the simplest answer to the question of whether we leaders of volunteers get paid what we deserve is the one Nathan J. Robinson concludes his article with:

“I have what I have because I happened to get it, not because there is some cosmic fairness to my getting it.”

What do you think?

Job equity for leaders and managers of volunteers

Job equity for leaders and managers of volunteers

Last month I wrote an article highlighting the work the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) have done to help organisations with volunteer diversity. The article received positive responses and feedback (thank you!) so in this post I want to feature another piece of MAVA work that deserves wide attention, “Job Equity for Volunteer Engagement Professionals”.

In June 2017, MAVA began a study designed to examine how Chief Executive’s (CEOs) recruit, support, and resource four key positions in USA based non-profit and public sector organisations:

  • Volunteer Engagement Professionals (e.g volunteer managers)
  • Development Directors (e.g. fundraising managers)
  • Program Directors (e.g. staff responsible for running operational departments and teams)
  • Human Resource Professionals (hopefully that one is obvious!)

The study surveyed 464 CEOs and conducted follow up interviews with a 24 non-profit CEOs to obtain deeper insight regarding the survey findings. Key highlights from the study include:

  • Staff leading volunteering are less likely to serve on an executive leadership team than the other three posts.
  • Volunteer engagement staff are more likely to be included in strategic planning than on the executive leadership team, but this is often done indirectly through their line managers.
  • Salaries for volunteering staff are lower in most organisations than those of the other posts examined.
  • Volunteer management jobs are more likely to be eliminated during difficult budget times.
  • Most CEOs recognised that most paid staff don’t understand what the volunteer engagement jobs entails, with volunteer managers often feeling siloed and not valued. For example, CEOs noted the misperception amongst other staff that volunteers are easy to recruit and retain.

The report also highlights the advice CEOs who lead organisations where volunteer engagement is valued would give to their less enlightened peers:

  • Articulate your support for the value of volunteers to the organisation and show the value of the volunteer engagement position.
  • Show your support through actions.
  • Structure volunteer management positions so that they have a high scope of responsibility, are considered to have strategic responsibilities and are linked both with development (fundraising) and fulfilling the organisation’s mission.
  • Involve volunteers at higher levels and throughout the organisation.
  • Invest more resources in volunteering.
  • Invest in training for the volunteer manager, paid staff, and volunteers.

You can see why I thought this study was worth highlighting outside of Minnesota!

When I look at my own comments and annotations to this MAVA study I struggle see how I can do it justice in the few words I have available to me. Here are just a few of my personal highlights:

  • Several CEOs indicated that it would make a big difference if volunteer managers advocated for volunteer engagement and could provide meaningful data on the value and impact of volunteers. That’s a challenge, but we must get better at influencing and measuring the true value of volunteering, not just how many we have and how many hours they give.
  • The need to include volunteer leadership and management in the curriculum of university non-profit management courses. This is something I’ve advocated for a long time – how can we educate people to lead civil society organisations effectively if we say nothing about the strategic value and importance of volunteer engagement?
  • Volunteer Management posts are given a low status, at least in part, because of the titles they hold. People are seen as co-ordinators and administrators and not managers or directors. Pay and status flow from this.
  • Volunteer Managers are viewed in light of their volunteers. If volunteers are unreliable and don’t make valuable contributions to the mission then volunteer managers are not viewed in a positive light too.
  • By describing what they do as a volunteer programme, leaders of volunteers reinforce the view that volunteer engagement is a tactical and not a strategic aspect of an organisations work. This limits the way they are viewed as a strategic asset to the organisation’s work and suggests why Volunteer Managers are often left out of strategic planning discussions.

MAVA’s work on this is both valuable and timely. It may have been done in a Minnesotan context but the issues it highlights are, for me, universal across the volunteer management profession. Dismissing this study because it is from the USA would be big mistake. I commend the full report to anyone who seriously wants to advocate for volunteer leadership and management in their organisations.

MAVA’s work on promoting job equity for volunteer engagement professionals can be accessed online with the full report costing USD$20.00.

Celebrating volunteering in the NHS

Happy birthday to the NHS!

Yesterday, the UK’s National Health Service marked it’s 70th birthday. Seventy years of providing free healthcare to the British public. The NHS is a national treasure and it was wonderful to see this milestone birthday celebrated.

One of the fun facts I learnt in the run up to the 70th birthday celebrations is that the NHS employs more than 1.5 million people. Only four other institutions employ more – McDonald’s, Walmart, the U.S. Defence Department and the People’s Liberation Army of China.

Of course, paid staff are just part of the story. Almost 80,000 people volunteer in hospitals, a number that some are keen to double by 2021. It has, therefore, been wonderful to see recognition and celebration of the role of volunteering in the NHS as part of the birthday celebrations.

Recognition like that given by the chief executive of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust who, in an article in March 2018, encouraged other NHS leaders to unlock the potential of volunteers.

“Well-managed and properly trained volunteers can help improve patient experiences and support staff, as well as contribute to a more connected community. The potential to maximise volunteering in the NHS is huge. It’s up to all of us to make this happen.”

Then there is volunteering that can help the NHS in ways outside of traditional ‘volunteers in hospitals’ roles and approaches. For example, last year I highlighted the importance of social prescribing and the contribution it can make to reducing demands placed on NHS services. This remains an under-valued approach that could significantly ease pressure on health services across the country.

Then there are organisations like Altogether Better who have spent a decade using volunteering to explore approaches that increase the efficiency of health services, improve the health of individuals and strengthen local communities.

And my personal favourite is the story of Scott Bateman MBE, a former RAF and now commercial pilot, whose father’s death inspired the creation of the UK’s original First Responder service. Scott’s story highlights the innovations that can come from the different perspectives volunteers can offer. Innovations that sometimes face resistance from those already working in a system, such the union representative in 1997 who Scott quotes in his story:

“What does a Pilot know about Ambulance Services, the plan is a nonsense”

So much nonsense that today first responders are a well established and essential part of NHS emergency care provision throughout the country. An innovation born of, and delivered through, volunteers.

So happy birthday NHS. And thank you to the thousands of people who volunteer in, with and through the health service. The care, support and creativity you provide is an essential part of keeping our national healthy and saving lives every day.

Practical tips for volunteer diversity – a new resource

Practical tips for volunteer diversity – a new resource

Diversity is one of those areas that many leaders of volunteers want to give more attention to but it is sometime hard to find practical advice on how to achieve real diversity amongst our volunteer teams. Helpfully, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) has a new resource to help.

MAVA’s Inclusive Volunteerism Task Force was set up to to explore barriers to volunteer engagement within diverse communities and identify successful strategies for overcoming these barriers. They published their report, “Engaging Volunteers from Diverse and Immigrant Communities: 8 Strategies for Creating a More Inclusive Volunteer Program,” in March 2018. The executive summary is available for free to all whilst the full report costs USD$20 (but is free to MAVA members). Both documents can be accessed here .

The MAVA report provides approachable steps that all leaders of volunteers can take to make progress on engaging a volunteer team that reflects the diversity of the communities they serve. While a small part of the report is focused on Minnesota, the majority of it can be applied in other settings and I found the content highly relevant for a UK setting.

I was especially struck by the first strategy, “Shift Your Language”. MAVA make the point that the term “volunteer” is not universally understood and many communities don’t label the time they give as volunteering. This is a point I have made on numerous occasions – just because people don’t volunteer with us doesn’t mean they don’t volunteer. See my article from 2016 for more of my thinking on this.

MAVA suggest a few of ideas for tackling the issue of terminology. Here are my two favourites:

  • Consider using words beyond “volunteer.” “Help” is one good option, but other broader terms – like “support,” “benefit,” or “give,” are also possibilities. For example, say how people can volunteer, say how they can help – simple but potentially very effective.
  • When recruiting volunteers from diverse communities, focus on how the volunteers can assist their community instead of how they will help your organisation. Talk about how a volunteer can help by giving their time to their community through your organisation, or how they can organise a clothing drive for their community. The organisation is implied – it’s a part of the process – but it’s not the focus.

Of course, as MAVA note, changing our language isn’t enough on it’s own to realise a more diverse volunteer team.

From the fundamental importance of building relationships with different communities, to the importance of organisational culture and an understanding of socio-economic barriers to volunteering, the MAVA report contains lots of useful advice and food for thought. I especially liked this point about offering volunteers flexibility:

“Let’s make it okay for volunteers to have other priorities.”

Yes, volunteering for you may not be the be all and end all of someone’s life. They have other things going on, potentially including volunteering with other organisations.

The report concludes with a helpful “Inclusive Volunteerism Action Plan” to help readers implement real change. They encourage a focus on a couple of specific actions for each strategy, recognising that leaders of volunteers are busy people and achievable action plans are more likely to be implemented.

“With each step you’ll make progress toward a more inclusive volunteer program. The important thing is to keep taking those steps.”

As you can tell, I am a fan of this report from MAVA. In fact, I am a fan of MAVA’s work in general. They are one of the more active volunteer management associations I have come across and I’ve had the pleasure of working with them on a couple of occasions now, including attending their conference earlier this month. So watch out for another article next month which will highlight some recent work from MAVA exploring the status of volunteer management in organisations in comparison with HR, fundraising and delivery roles.

Technology and its impact on volunteer management in the future

Technology and its impact on volunteer management in the future

This is the second article of a two-part series about technology and volunteer management. If you missed part one then please take a few minutes to read it before you continue with this article.

As we saw last time, technology has changed the way we work in volunteer management. We are so familiar are with the technology that is now a part of our lives that it’s easy to forget the extent of the change that taken place in the last few years. Yet, despite all that change, we have adapted, both personally and professionally.

But what about the changes that are coming? Changes that could be even more momentous. I want to look at just two examples and how they may affect volunteerism – Artificial Intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles.

Artificial Intelligence

HAL, the AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey
HAL, the AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Once the preserve of Science Fiction movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the sinister HAL, AI is becoming increasingly common in our modern world.

“AI is anything a computer can’t do yet.” – Seth Godin

Seth’s point is that as soon as what was once branded as AI becomes commonplace, we no longer think of it as AI. Consider Siri, Google Assistant or Alexa for a moment. Show them to your 2005 self and you’d be amazed, but in 2018 they are simply an accepted part of our lives.

The same will be true of AI in our work in 2028. What seems outlandish now will be the norm.

Today, AI systems are helping people do mundane tasks like schedule meetings. Just think, no more email tennis to plan in all those meetings with volunteers. What a time saver!

A tennis ball and net on a computer monitor
A tennis ball and net on a computer monitor

AI is also helping with recruitment for paid jobs. An AI whittles the applications to a long-list of candidates before an AI powered chat bot conducts an initial interview, asking pre-agreed questions. In theory this approach is fairer than an human interviewing as the AI interprets responses without the unconscious biases all humans posses.

This approach to recruitment is intriguing and it’s application to volunteer recruitment is clear – volunteer managers could save considerable amounts of time deploying AI in this way, allowing them to focus their efforts on those people most likely to be suitable volunteers.

Think this is pure fantasy? Well, AI is already being used by some volunteer involving organisations. Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS) use a chat bot to answer frequently asked questions from volunteers on CHAS’s Workplace by Facebook platform, releasing staff time to focus on other tasks.

Logo for Children's Hospices Across Scotland
Logo for Children’s Hospices Across Scotland

Autonomous vehicle

Despite some bad press recently, driverless cars are here to stay, not least because many people see them as a way to vastly reduce the horrifying number of people killed or injured on the roads every year.

Back in 2015 Jay Samit, writing in TechCrunch, predicted that a human driving a car will be illegal by 2030. We can debate if that time frame is correct, but it’s safe to say that within the next twenty-five years taxi drivers, bus drivers, lorry drivers and other driving related jobs will be obsolete, replaced by AI drivers.

Dilbert debating with a robot about who will do his work in future.
Dilbert debating with a robot about who will do his work in future.

What will this mean for thousands of volunteer drivers giving their time right now? Will they be out of a ‘job’ too, forced to sit on the sidelines as technology does their work for them?

I suppose that depends on whether the core of their role is the driving or, in the case of those who drive other people, the personal connection they have with their passengers? For example: a volunteer who’d drives to empty charity collection boxes may well no longer be needed – especially as collection boxes are likely to go cashless; whereas a patient transport volunteer may instead be able to focus all their attention on their passengers whilst the vehicle does the work of driving them both to a hospital appointment.

If you are managing a volunteer driver scheme right now, what are you doing to prepare for this change? What threats and opportunities does it present?

Closing thoughts

I want to close with the Bill Gates quote I opened the first article in this series with:

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”.

The changes I have hinted at above might seem outlandish and far-fetched to some of you, but they are coming. They are the tip of the iceberg in how technology will change the shape our lives and societies in future. Volunteering will not be immune to those changes and we have to think now about what it means for our work as leaders and managers of volunteers. Embracing these changes will not be easy and we may feel ill-equipped to adapt. But adapt we must. Change we must. For, as retired US Army General Gen. Eric Shinseki said:

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

Further reading

For those interested in doing a little more reading about AI I highly recommend three articles that indicate some of the ways in which AI could be harmful, especially as it may not be as unbiased and neutral as some people argue:

Technology & its impact on volunteer management to date

Technology & its impact on volunteer management to date

Bill Gates once said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”. In this new two-part blog series I want to briefly explore how technology has changed volunteer management in the last few years and how it might shape our work in future.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates

An age of wonder

As someone who grew up in the technologically simple days of the 1970s and 1980s, I am often amazed by the modern technological world. The jump has been immense, from the computer games loaded from tape I played as a child to the immersive, Virtual Reality Ultra HD gaming consoles available today. Throughout my life the stuff of science fiction truly has become daily reality.

A young man wearing a VR headset
A young man wearing a VR headset

People are fearful

Yet as technology has become a more integral part of our lives, so people have become more fearful that it will have a negative impact, from the Terminator like annihilation of the human race to machines taking our jobs. Such fears are perhaps inevitable but they certainly aren’t new. Since the industrial revolution people have feared the loss of their livelihoods as machines, computers and technology have become more commonplace.

Letters spelling out the word fear
Letters spelling out the word fear

Some jobs no longer exist

From my own childhood, I can distinctly remember visiting my dad at work in the Bolton branch of Barclays Bank. One of the offices was full of women sitting in rows typing correspondence to customers. No more. Today, that work is done by computers. Those jobs are gone.

A typing pool in the 1970s
A typing pool in the 1970s

Some new jobs have been created

We often forget, however, that as these ‘old’ jobs disappear, new ones are created. For example, fifteen years ago there was no such thing as social media and so no job called Social Media Marketing Manager. Now there are thousands of these jobs around the globe focused on promoting brands, products and services via social media.

A woman working at a laptop
A woman working at a laptop

How volunteer management has changed

Volunteer management hasn’t been immune to these changes. Some of the volunteer roles we once relied upon have become extinct, whilst technology has also helped us do our jobs better. Here are two examples:

  1. Envelope stuffing. This was a crucial role in many Volunteer Involving Organisations when I started work in 1994. Few organisations had access to email, so teams of volunteers would come together to put newsletters and mass mailings into envelopes. It was a great way to get people to try out volunteering in an easily accessible role that allowed for lots of social interaction with other volunteers. Today, thanks to email and software like MailChimp, envelope stuffing has gone the way of the dodo.

    Envelopes
    Envelopes
  2. Volunteer management software. If we occasionally mourn for the loss of roles like envelope stuffing, we rarely mourn the loss of some of the more tedious aspects of volunteer management. Today there are a plethora of software products to help us in our work. These tech tools allow volunteers to keep their details up-to-date, manage their own schedules, engage in basic induction and training activities, and much more. Volunteer Managers are freed from a range of administrative tasks that sucked our time and took us away from the human aspects of our role – engaging with volunteers, paid colleagues and the public. Thanks to technology we can now spend more time on the people parts of our roles and allocate more time to do the strategic thinking and planning so necessary for success.

    Two people talking
    Two people talking

Final thoughts

When Bill Gates spoke of underestimating the change to come in the next ten years, he didn’t mention how easily we forget the changes of the past. We live so much in the moment, and with an eye to what is to come, that we rarely look back. I hope the two examples I have shared I have made the case that technology has changed volunteer management in the last few years because, as we will examine next time, there is plenty more change in store for us in the future.

Over to you

In what ways have you noticed technology changing volunteer management in the last 10-20 years? Have those changes been good or bad in your view? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.