Last month saw the 18th outing for International Volunteer Managers Day. The day, marked on 5 November, is all about celebrating the work of those who lead volunteers and educating others about this key role. The theme for 2017 was "Be the Voice", urging volunteer managers to speak up and speak out.
Shortly before IVMDay, I gave the opening keynote address at Volunteering New Zealand’s annual conference in Auckland. My theme was "Stop being so bloody nice". Many of those who work with volunteers are inherently nice people. They have to be to engage effectively and lead others to work for no financial reward, often in challenging circumstances. But that niceness can also be our downfall.
We can fail to take action against the toxic volunteer who drives others away and hampers the ability of our organisation to meet its mission. When we fail to address poor performance and behaviour by volunteers, we communicate a message that says we don’t care what they do or how they do it, devaluing the contribution volunteers make and damaging our professional credibility.
We can fail to challenge the prejudices of paid staff about the competence of volunteers. Too often I hear stories of employees who dismiss volunteers as incompetent, unreliable and ineffective simply because they are unpaid. The same employees too often fail to recognise that volunteers hold life and death in their hands every day in the UK when they crew lifeboats, work as first responders and staff mountain rescue teams.
We can fail to influence upwards effectively about volunteering, to senior management teams and boards (who, ironically, are themselves volunteers). Our niceness means we too often accept what we are given, expressing gratitude when inadequate resources are allocated, or cuts made, to engaging volunteers.
We can fail to to lobby funders, government and others in positions of power and influence. Few professional associations for leaders and managers of volunteers take on an advocacy role, speaking up for their members. Instead, they emphasise developing good practice and supporting networking, both valid activities, but of limited value if the wider context for our work remains ignorant and ill-informed about volunteering.
In my address to the New Zealand conference I made it clear that I don’t think we should be nice all the time. Nor, however, should we become petulant toddlers, throwing our toys out of the pram when we don’t get what we want. Rather, we have to balance our inherent niceness with an assertive streak, instead of accepting everything that comes our way as inevitable.
Addressing October’s Association of Volunteer Managers conference, Vicky Browning, chief executive of the charity leaders body Acevo, said: "Volunteer managers should focus more on strategy and less on niceness. Niceness won't advance the profession."
Perhaps 2018 will be a year in which we stop being so bloody nice all the time and stand up for our volunteers, ourselves and our profession. I hope so.
Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant