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The Dangers of Too Much Enthusiasm

The Dangers of Too Much Enthusiasm

Many volunteer program managers bemoan the fact that they receive little support from top management.  In this issue’s Points of View we will consider the consequences of having entirely too enthusiastic backing from executive decision-makers – whether politicians or agency administrators -- especially in the early stages of developing a volunteer effort.

There are two levels of possible over-enthusiasm.  The first is the growing tendency of national governments to voice advocacy for volunteerism, whether through proclamations of country-wide recruitment campaigns, actual legislation channeling funding for various projects, or just loud speechifying on how important volunteering is to the social good and civil society.   The second is at the individual organization level, in which the attitudes and actions of top managers lead to increased volunteer involvement (maybe).

The Political Climate

Steve began his portion of Points of View while in England working with volunteer managers in the police service, libraries, museums, and the National Health Service.  All of these are sectors within the UK that are currently experiencing rapid growth in their involvement of volunteers, and all of the volunteer managers are dealing with the problems that arise because of the attempt to quickly impose volunteer involvement from the top down.

It isn’t that volunteer involvement in these sectors isn’t a good idea, because it is and is also long overdue.  But as anyone who has gone through forced organizational change quickly realizes, it is difficult to convince institutions to change without their informed consent.  And attempting to do so can generate resistance from existing staff that will greatly inhibit the development of the volunteer program.  This would be a sad thing, especially since the UK is currently leading the world in innovation in volunteering and development of the volunteering sector.

One politician, with aspirations for the Prime Minister position, seized upon volunteering as his soapbox.  Among other things, and seemingly without consultation with those who might have advised him otherwise, he declared 2005 to be the “Year of Volunteers” in England – despite 2001 having been the UN’s international Year of the Volunteer (IYV), through which many initiatives, studies, and recommendations to government had already been made and were still uncompleted.  Nevertheless, last year public and private funds were found to launch yet more initiatives, studies, and Web sites.  Good things – such as the push for new sectors to increase volunteerism – may have resulted, but much of the money supported short-term projects and did not filter down to the people in the trenches who cared about volunteer issues long before 2005 and still do in 2006.

As our Keyboard Roundtable in this journal issue addresses, one problem with government leader enthusiasm is that it is so often transient.  Canada’s Volunteerism Initiative, started during IYV2001, held onto support for five years and then suddenly became one of the casualties of the new Conservative government’s budget-cutting rampage, losing CAN$9 million overnight.  [See the Keyboard Roundtable on this situation in this issue.]

Another concern, well understood by most of us, is that volunteering is often touted by government leaders for all the wrong reasons and under major misconceptions, namely:

  • That “using” volunteers will lower costs, thereby taking government off the hook for adequate funding of needed programs, especially for marginalized populations.
  • That the real problem is citizens’ unwillingness to volunteer and therefore that a big recruitment campaign with toll-free numbers and centralized databanks is the answer.
  • That nonprofit organizations actually want or are ready for more volunteers.
  • That there is little need for money or skills to support volunteers.

To all of which we can only say:  Oh, yeah?

Agency Executives

Susan is especially known for her book, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success, so it may surprise some to see her bemoan too much enthusiasm from executives.  All things considered, it is better to have top administrators voice support for volunteers than not, but if the support is all talk without tangible commitment of resources, it is only lip service.  It quickly becomes quite transparent to employees and volunteers when management loves the idea of community involvement but stays disengaged from the daily issues of making such involvement really work.

How can you tell when enthusiasm for volunteers is only skin deep?  Here’s a brief list of tell-tale signs:

  • Being concerned solely with numbers of volunteers (“how many have we got now?”) and not with what they are actually accomplishing.
  • Not defining an annual budget for the volunteer program, forcing its coordinator to beg, borrow, or steal funds from other programs – if even allowed to do that. 
  • Never planning ahead to raise funds to support volunteers.
  • Extolling the importance of volunteers as “providing us with community perspective,” but never actually talking to or with any volunteers during the year – or even when attending the annual recognition event.
  • Really wanting help, not input.
  • Allowing members of staff to decide for themselves whether or not to create a volunteer assignment in their unit, as if it was optional.
  • Treating the volunteer program manager as a glorified administrative assistant and not a department head (shown by low level of salary, exclusion from management team meetings, and rare access to top executives).
  • Not including “will work as a team with qualified volunteers” in the job descriptions of every employee who will be expected to do just that.
  • Being oblivious to middle managers who passively but clearly resist volunteers as taking time away from their staffs and so undercut the message of wanting volunteers.
  • Not offering incentives/rewards to paid staff who are great with volunteers and not having negative consequences for those who are terrible.
  • Never putting the topic of volunteer engagement on the agenda of a meeting of the board of directors.
  • Omitting volunteers from the organization’s annual report.

“Brief,” you say?  Well, we could have gone on a lot longer.  The key point is that all too often, as Susan says, we confuse “support” with what is really benign neglect.  Or maybe not so benign….

 A Dozen Polite and Well-Intentioned Suggestions

 So we thought we’d suggest some guidelines for those enthusiastic politicians and agency decision makers who want to be helpful in encouraging the growth of volunteering.

  1. If you’re going to initiate volunteer support in a sector or agency that doesn’t have a tradition of community involvement, it helps to spend time attempting to involve those affected – whether sector leaders or the organization’s paid staff – in the decision to involve volunteers, and to spend time allowing them to accustom themselves to the notion.  This means the time to discuss the rationale and decide whether they support the notion at all – no matter how long this might take.  The debate about volunteer involvement should not just occur among top managers.

  2. It also helps if one is not, at the same time as adding volunteers, announcing a variety of cutbacks in resources and staffing throughout the sector or agency.  People will interpret and believe what they think they see, not what they hear.

  3. In institutions that have unions who look after the interests of paid staff, it would be nice to ensure that the unions have been involved in this process and feel comfortable that the interests of their members are protected – unless executives relish conflict.  It is the mission of labor unions to maintain the status quo of existing jobs and they will suspiciously view volunteer assignments as encroachment.  Expect this reaction.  Be ready to make the case for why an organization needs both employees and volunteers, not either/or.   There is historical evidence, in fact, that volunteers become advocates for adequate funding (they see the need for money and service) and often create new paying jobs. Volunteers are simply not interested in taking away paid jobs from staff.

  4. It isn’t enough to simply publish an organizational policy saying that volunteering is desirable and that paid positions will be protected.  Staff – including middle managers – must believe in the rationale for the involvement of volunteers and believe that their positions will be safe.  They also need time to assimilate the change in how business will be done.

  5. Since volunteer programs benefit from intelligent management, selecting coordinators for the new volunteering effort by simply “anointing” the closest junior staff member, willing and intelligent as s/he might be, is probably not the best idea, especially when you don’t reduce any of the person’s existing tasks and position requirements.  It’s hard to do start-up of a volunteer program in 10% of one’s time.   Also decide at what point of growth you will be willing to reassess and increase the staffing of the program – or cap the number of volunteers you will accept.

  6. Line staff who will be working with volunteers need added time for such management.  Asking a staff person who is already giving 110% to assume additional duties in supervising volunteers is not likely to generate much enthusiasm or a competent effort. 

  7. Even more important than time, line staff need the skills to work successfully with volunteers.  Never assume the staff is trained in this rather unique form of supervision, even if they are highly educated with professional degrees.  Almost no professional academic program today prepares its practitioners on the subject of volunteers, whether its graduates are nurses, social workers, teachers, public administrators, or any other line of work that, without question, will come in contact with citizen engagement.  This is a glaring and bewildering omission that keeps volunteer management an invisible subject and implies that there is nothing to say about it.  So be prepared to provide in-service training to your staff to fill this gap in their education. 

  8. It is very difficult to recruit volunteers in a setting where only a very narrow range of volunteer opportunities is allowed.  This makes it quite difficult to compete with charities that are more innovative and opportunistic in appealing to volunteers.

  9. While national recruitment campaigns can help, no national recruitment campaign substitutes for local efforts.  And local “we need volunteers (or any human with a pulse)” campaigns are no substitute for targeted recruitment based on those innovative opportunities smart organizations develop.

  10. Setting numerical targets for volunteer involvement, while good in theory, is seldom good in practice, especially in the early going when quality of operation is a more desirable target than numbers.

  11. Saying that you support volunteer involvement isn’t quite the same thing as really supporting the effort to involve volunteers.  That requires money to provide the management infrastructure that will enable the volunteer effort to succeed.  As a wise political friend of Steve’s once observed:  “If you want to know what an organization really believes in, read its budget, not its PR announcements.”

  12. Consider and then articulate your personal philosophy of volunteerism – why you believe it is worth supporting for your constituency or organization.  Develop and articulate a vision for what volunteer involvement should look like as you move into the future.  Then plan for the vision to become reality, in exactly the same way you would implement any new management direction.  Enthusiasm is a great first step.  But you have to keep walking.

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