Working with volunteers

I recently came across a helpful blog by Digital Spark Marketing discussing how to keep employees engaged. In it they identify four key elements – motivation, trust, loyalty and engagement – which together give an indication of how engaged employees are in their organisation. They argue, and I would agree, that the more engaged staff are the more positive the customer experience is likely to be. And that, surely, is why we work in the voluntary and community sector.

When working with clients, the recommendations used most frequently by Digital Spark were:

  • Be clear on your values and expectations.
  • Be consistent with your priorities.
  • Lead by example.
  • Provide enough information.
  • Provide coaching where it is needed .
  • Don’t provide too much direction.

To this list I would add respect. In the workplace, and in society more generally, respect seems to be a dwindling commodity. As Kathleen Quinn Votaw points out in her blog A Simple Matter of Respect: How to get it and give it, being courteous, kind, polite, and allowing people to maintain their dignity stems from respect.

Dallas based Southwest Airlines has always been at the forefront of the airline industry. Founded in 1967, it is the largest low cost carrier in the United States and as of June 2011 was the largest airline in the United States based upon domestic passengers carried. Fortune magazine has recognized Southwest Airlines in its annual survey of corporate reputations for the past ten years and in 2005, Fortune listed Southwest Airlines as number three among America’s Top Ten most admired corporations. Southwest Airlines’ founder, Herbert Kelleher, used to say that you have to treat your employees right, like they were customers, and then they’ll treat your customers right. He said it was Southwest’s most powerful competitive weapon.

In some research undertaken looking at the success of Southwest Airlines (The Southwest Airlines Way) the evidence suggested that the heart of the Southwest success story are three elements:

  • 10 organisational practices which build relationships between managers and front-line employees and among employees;
  • an environment which emphasizes shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect; and
  • sound communication techniques which are frequent, timely and focused on solving problems.

Jody Gittell concludes “Far from being a pie-in-the-sky, soft approach to management, attention to relationships is simply good management practice. The ‘Southwest Airlines Way’ involves more than pursuing a particular product marketing strategy. For Southwest’s leaders, taking care of business literally means taking care of relationships. They see these relationships – with their employees, among their employees, and with outside parties – as the foundation of competitive advantage, through good times and bad. They see the quality of these relationships not as a success factor, but as the most essential success factor. They believe that to develop the company, they must continually invest in these relationships.”

The results seem to speak for themselves. It seems that respect does make a significant difference as Southwest Airlines continue to prove.

However, most charities depend on volunteers. Whilst employment law requires organisations to treat employees differently to volunteers, I wonder how well the VCS in general treats its volunteer workforce. Do we treat them with less respect because we are not paying them? Do we communicate with them like we would our paid staff? Or do we take the passionate giving of their time for granted?

The PQASSO quality framework has a section on managing people – including volunteers. At level 1, which sets the minimum requirements that any organisation should meet, it has indicators like:

  • meeting the different legal requirements relating to staff and volunteers
  • volunteers understand what is expected of them
  • new people are told about the organisation …
  • staff and volunteers get enough individual support and supervision to carry out their work effectively
  • relevant news and information are circulated, and meetings are held with staff and volunteers to discuss the organisation’s activities

So what is it really like out there in the sector for both paid staff and volunteers?

  1. How do we treat our unpaid, volunteer staff?
  2. How well does your organisation treat it’s volunteers?
  3. How well does your organisation treat you?

Please let me know of good and less good examples. And if you think your organisation would benefit from adopting the PQASSO quality framework, then please let me know and I would be delighted to offer my assistance as a CES licensed PQASSO Mentor, based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.