Three thoughts on how the language we use in volunteer role descriptions really matters

FeaturedThree thoughts on how the language we use in volunteer role descriptions really matters

Developing good role descriptions is a lost art

The demands to constantly find new volunteers leave Volunteer Managers little time to think clearly and carefully, before recruitment starts, about the actual work those volunteers will be doing.

“Attempting to recruit volunteers without first having developed worthwhile positions to offer them is equivalent to attempting to sell a product to people who have no need for it.  It can be done, but the buyer may well become unhappy later.  And when volunteers are unhappy, they don’t stay around long.” – McCurley, Lynch and Jackson, The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook (2012)

New research might help

I was interested to read an article from Stanford Business School in the USA, “Beware of Workplace Policies That Kill Motivation”. It draws on recent research that highlights how subtle changes in the language of employment contracts can have a powerful psychological effect and influence on a range of ways employees behave. Significantly, to quote the article:

“The research found that designing a contract to specifically curb an employee’s counterproductive behaviors can, ultimately, exacerbate counterproductive behaviors”.

Although the article focuses on paid staff and the language of contracts, the lessons are equally applicable to volunteer management.

What’s wrong with volunteer role descriptions?

Role descriptions for volunteers are typically controlling documents, instructing volunteers what to do and not do, giving little scope for the volunteer to bring their own skills, talents, experience and ideas to the work. As one volunteer once said to me, “The problem with volunteer management is that it has become all about what volunteers can’t do, not what they can do”.

Such a controlling approach to volunteer management is often driven by misconceptions of volunteers being well meaning but unreliable amateurs, people who need controlling if we are to avoid problem behaviour and poor performance. Yet, the research highlighted by Stanford suggests approaching volunteer roles like this this actually risks making problem behaviour and poor performance more likely.

Three ways forward

How then, can we construct and articulate roles for volunteers that address anxieties about the competence and reliability of volunteers but also empowering them to be creative, autonomous and successful?

To answer that question I have copied three key quotes from the article and outlined my thoughts about the application of these to volunteer management.

1 – Mindset shift

“From management’s perspective, contracts are too often used merely as a way to exercise control over the workforce. But management could also use contracts to motivate employees. Our research explains how employers can achieve both ends with the same tool.”

My thoughts: A mindset shift is needed. We need to challenge the belief we and others may hold about volunteer competence and risk. Competence does not relate to how much someone gets paid. Volunteers, properly recruited and trained, present no more of a risk that paid staff and so do not need to be controlled more than anyone else. In fact, as motivation is such a key part of volunteer management, we must find ways to make our volunteer roles more meaningful and motivating, and that means being less controlling.

2 – Be more vague (sometimes)

“Across nine different experiments, the researchers found that workers whose contracts contained more general language spent more time on their tasks, generated more original ideas, and were more likely to cooperate with others. They were also more likely to return for future work with the same employer, underscoring the durable and long-lasting nature of the effect.”

My thoughts: If we want to retain volunteers, if we want them to achieve more, generate new ideas, be more motivated and work well with others, then we need to use more general language in our role descriptions. This could mean suggesting tasks they could do rather than telling them exactly what to do. It could also mean focusing more on the results we want them to achieve and less on the specific tasks we want them to perform.

3 – When to not be so vague

“Typically, contracts contain both “control” and “coordination” clauses. Control clauses tell you what you can and can’t do at work, while coordination clauses help you align expectations. In other words, coordination clauses let workers know what employers want, while control clauses tell them how to do it and, quite often, what not to do.

“An example of a control clause run amok can be found in a 2003 Department of Defense employment contract for pastry bakers. The 26-page document specifies the number of chocolate chips each cookie should contain, but nowhere does it mention that the cookies should taste good.”

“The key is to remember that greater specificity can be helpful in coordination clauses by making sure both sides are on the same page, but it can backfire in control clauses by dampening an employee’s feelings of autonomy.”

My thoughts: If we are going to use more general language, then we should do so with control clauses. Being too prescriptive when telling people what we want them to do reduces autonomy and motivation. On the other hand, being specific in the language we use in co-ordination clauses can enhance motivation & clarify agreement between the volunteer and their manager about what the volunteer is expected to achieve.

In other words, making the results we want volunteers to achieve really tangible and being less prescriptive when explaining the tasks we want volunteers to perform would both be good steps to take.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your reflections on this point and the article that inspired it. Please leave a comment below.

Can we help?

If you’d like to find out how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help your organisation develop meaningful and motivating roles for your volunteers then please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you and work with you to engage and inspire your people to bring about change.

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A different way to think of volunteer diversity

In my last article I updated a piece from 2015 which encouraged us to stop talking about amateurs and professionals when we refer to volunteers and paid staff. Thank you to everyone who has liked and shared it, the topic seems to have resonated with many people.

Here, I want to briefly expand on that theme, drawing from an excellent article by writer Charles Chu and tying it in with some thinking on diversity by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and writer Jeff Howe.

Let’s get started.

Examining GK Chesterton’s views on amateurs, Charles Chu makes a great point:

“Saying that professions are becoming more specialized is NOT the same as saying that there is no room for amateurs. And it certainly does not mean amateurs cannot contribute. Take the tech industry, for example. Google, Microsoft, Facebook — all of these big companies were started by amateurs. And then there’s Wikipedia, which, despite being run (almost) entirely by amateurs, has replaced the eminent and professional Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The Internet has shown us there are people willing to make things with no immediate benefit at all. And they do pretty damn good job of it. The amateur is back.” – Charles Chu

Modern technology, particularly through the internet, allows us to tackle issues we would never have previously been able to address. One example is crowdsourcing, my first experience of which was SETI at home.

Still going today, this initiative from Berkeley University of California gets participants to download software to their computer which then analyses radio telescope data from the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. There is just too much data for SETI staff to analyse on their own so they engage amateur astronomy enthusiasts – citizen scientists – to volunteer some of their computer power to help.

“The potency of the pixie dust in crowdsourcing is largely a function of the diversity that naturally occurs in any large group of people. Amateurs have always made contributions to disciplines like astronomy and meteorology that thrive on large numbers of observations.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

Taking this further, in their article, “Why we shouldn’t underestimate the power of diversity”, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe look at how society needs to think and work differently to prepare for a future of unknown complexity.

They make a key observation in regard to Eterna (a game where players create designs for synthetic RNA, designs that are then synthesised at Stanford University in the hope of creating new cures for disease):

“Eterna represents a radical rethinking of one of capitalism’s central assumptions, that labor is best allocated through a command-and-control style of management. Eterna instead relies on an attribute – diversity – that has traditionally been underestimated.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

All of which got me thinking. When we think of diversity in the non-profit world are we missing an important aspect? To be fully effective in our work we need not only a mix of people working with and supporting our causes based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity etc., but also a mix based on pay category – of paid staff and volunteers.

All this well-meaning amateur nonsense prevents that from happening. Imagine if we talked about any other group of people we want to diversify our workforce from in the way we do volunteers? “They are just disabled people, they can’t be trusted,” That would rightly be outrageous.

We need to see volunteers as key allies in the pursuit of our missions, not obstacles to getting work done or annoyances to be tolerated. Embracing the positive difference volunteers bring and harnessing that to maximum effect alongside the work of paid staff, will result in bigger and better impact on the world we want to create. Science gets this, hence initiatives like SETI at Home and Eterna.

Isn’t it time for non-profit leaders, boards, managers and paid staff to wake up to this potential in our own backyard and start changing the way they talk about volunteers? The work we do is too important not to harness the passion and dedication of citizen support through volunteering.

Three reasons why it’s time to stop talking about amateurs and professionals

For many years I’ve heard and read variations on the same theme: Volunteers are just well-meaning amateurs. If you want something done properly then it needs to be handed over to a professional.

It’s not just people working in non-profits that believe this nonsense either.

It’s a position used as a justification for not giving volunteers meaningful things to do. They’re amateurs, they’d just mess it up.

It’s an argument used to combat fears of job displacement. Whether in libraries, policing or other settings, volunteers as incompetent amateurs is a common position of unions and others.

It’s a way of thinking that perpetuates a division in Volunteer Involving Organisations, between the paid staff – who are seen as essential – and the volunteers – who are seen as a nice to have optional extra, a bit like metallic paint on a new car.

We need to stop this thinking. Anytime we encounter such views we need to start actively challenging them.

Here are three reasons why.

“A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it.” – GK Chesterton


The first relates to definitions.

Whilst it is true that the word amateur can be used to denote competence, its primary definition is one that refers to an activity undertaken without pay. Professional, on the other hand, suggests either that someone belongs to a specific profession (a doctor, lawyer or teacher for example) or is being paid for the work they do.

So, whilst some may suggest volunteers are incompetent by calling them amateurs, the labelling of paid staff as professionals carries with it no assumption of competence.

It is one of the biggest myths I encounter in my work that if someone is paid they become more competent. Similarly that the more someone is paid the more competent they must be.

Over the last few years I have asked two questions when I train groups: how many of you have worked with incompetent volunteers?; how many of you have worked with incompetent paid staff? More hands go up in response to the second question. Every time. Everywhere I work in the world.

“When you love something so much that you’d do it without pay, you end up pretty good at it. So good that, at times, you can outclass the professionals.” – Charles Chu


Second, labelling volunteers as well-meaning amateurs, and therefore implying they are incompetent, is just lazy thinking that dodges the need to consider properly how we effectively engage people in our organisations.

Let’s go back to the library example I mentioned above. Have any of the critics of volunteers in libraries ever considered that there might be very well trained, highly competent professional librarians who want to volunteer to help run these library services? Perhaps they are retired and want to get involved in their field again? Perhaps they are non-practising librarians but want time away from their non-library day jobs? Perhaps they are unemployed and / or returning to work and want to get up-to-speed again?

Nope, the assumption is that managers will take anyone they can find and throw them in at the deep end, untrained, to work in a library. If we did that then, of course, professional librarians would be a better option, but would any competent leader of volunteers ever do such a thing? No! We spend time finding the right people, selecting them carefully for the right roles, training them up and supporting them to do the best work possible.

“While professional has many reasons for doing something (money, prestige, power), an amateur has only one —the “genuine fire and reality” of pure, unbridled passion. You can always trust an amateur.” – Charles Chu


Finally, the issues we face in society are simply too big for any one pay category to deal with. No nonprofit organisation is ever going to have all the money to pay people to do all the work that needs doing. A team effort is needed, one where paid and unpaid ‘staff’ are engaged and deployed most effectively to work together to achieve an organisation’s mission.

“None of the activities that really matter can be pursued in a merely professional capacity; for instance, the emergence of the professional politician marks the decline of democracy, since in a true democracy politics should be the privilege and duty of every citizen. When love becomes professional, it is prostitution. You need to provide evidence of professional training even to obtain the modest position of street-sweeper or dog-catcher, but no one questions your competence when you wish to become a husband or a wife, a father or a mother — and yet these are full-time occupations of supreme importance, which actually require talents bordering on genius.” – GK Chesterton


We can no longer afford to waste energy discrediting volunteers as well-meaning but incompetent amateurs whilst automatically assuming paid staff are always competent and the solution to everything. Instead, we need to embrace the passion & potential of volunteers and employees, amateurs and professionals, and harness that for the good causes we serve.

Anything less is at best wasteful – and at worst negligent – behaviour in the stewardship of our resources when so many are in need of our support.

(This is an updated version of an article originally posted on my old blog site back in February 2015. Quotations are from this article by Charles Chu.)