I have Changed and Who’s to be Responsible?
I have Changed and Who’s to be Responsible?
I’m no longer who I used to be. And who or what is to be “responsible” for this change? I would have to say
that it is my work as a volunteer programme manager (VPM).
In response to an article I came across on
http://volunteerplaintalk.com/2016/02/24/10-ways-managing-volunteers-prepare-you-for-life/, it has also got me thinking about my work as a VPM and how it has changed me.
We spent a considerable large part of our waking hours at work and inevitably, it shapes who we are, how we think and approach matters. As I reflect on my more than 10 years of working in the area of Volunteer Development & Partnerships (VDP), I have come to realise how I have grown as a person and as a professional through it. I have learnt many a valuable life lessons and life skills from it. I thank God that the diverse nature and demands of the job have provided a platform to mould me as I am today. Here’s a short list of these life lessons and skills I have learnt:
1. Networking and social skills
One of the great life lessons and skills I have learnt is that of being functionally extroverted. I am an introvert by nature. When I first started as a VPM, I was concerned that given my naturally introverted personality, I would not last long in a job which requires me to interact with many people in the line of duty, often times people I do not know. But little did I expect to grow to be a functionally extroverted person; being able to comfortably interact with people, give presentations and facilitate meetings when the need arises. Yes, it was difficult at first but today, I have grown in this aspect so much so that when I share with colleagues that I am introverted by nature, they wou
ld usually give me a “you got to be kidding me” stare.
2. Faith in Humanity
With all the bad news and citizen journalism focusing on negative news all around me, it sometimes can get somewhat depressing. I have, at one point in my life, been disappointed with how selfish and inconsiderate people can be. But I would have to say that my saving grace is that of my job, which helped me to remain positive. It is hard not to be positive because you are meeting and interacting with people who serve and volunteer even when they do not have to. There is a kind of positivity that is so infectious and inspiring that it just lifts me up. And as I get to know my volunteers more, I come to know that they too are individuals with stories and struggles but they have chosen to give of themselves nonetheless, so that another person can have it better. That itself overwrites all the negativity I can sometimes encounter in life.
3. “I can never please everyone”
I used to have low self-esteem and was a people-pleaser. When someone is not happy, I tend to internalise it as him/her being unhappy with me. But being on the job has helped me realise, in a very real way, that I cannot please everyone; it is impossible. I just have to know what is the right thing to do and go ahead with it.
4. Being strengths-oriented
Being a VPM, it is impossible to not be strengths-oriented. By that, I mean being able to see the strengths that any person has over their weaknesses and seeing how this strength can be developed and harnessed for the good of all, including the beneficiaries we are helping and the person him or herself. As a VPM, we are constantly on the lookout for strength and also on growth opportunities, to help volunteers to grow as a person too.
5. Daring to ask and dealing with rejections
Although somewhat similar to item 3, this deals mainly with being courageous to step forward to ask of someone to give of themselves as a volunteer, seeking and expecting quality from their work and being OK if he/she says no. Just as I learnt that I am asking, in the interest of the beneficiaries I serve, I have learnt and come to respect that people have their own priorities as well and when they say no, it is just things do not work out at this point in time because of a misfit in priorities. Nothing personal.
6. Saying No
Perhaps, an important lesson and skill I have learnt being a VPM is that of saying no. I know why I’m doing what I am doing and often times, if we let a project, which does not benefit the beneficiaries we serve through, we would have wasted a lot of valuable resources and everyone’s time. The same goes for the placement of volunteers. Relationships may sour and everyone may leave with a bad after-taste. So, we need to learn to say no when we know a particular volunteer project or volunteer is not going to be a good fit.
7. Being resourceful
Talking about resources, VPMs usually have limited resources to work with but yet need to find the right volunteers for all the needs that have been surfaced for the volunteer programme to meet. Years of doing it have helped me to learn to be resourceful and also “locking in” every resource that I find in my memory, ready to be activated when I need them. It requires me to also be creative to bring together people, who may have small parts to offer that might meet a need.
Being a VPM, I need to also master the art of delegation. After all, I’m in the “business” because I know I cannot meet all the needs and need to work with different people and their strengths to achieve things. If I do not learn to delegate but micro-manage, then I would burnout. I have to learn to delegate, respect my volunteers’ autonomy and professionalism and checking-in with them on a periodical basis to ensure everything is on track. I have to learn to also delegate leadership to trusted volunteers who can, in turn, lead other volunteers.
9. Big Picture Thinking & Working with Motivations
I have learnt big picture thinking and need to check in on myself on how the things I’m doing fit into the larger scheme of things. It’s easy being self-absorbed in my work and getting all worked up when things don’t go well in the area of VDP. But at the end of the day, I have to ensure that what I am doing is making a real difference and achieving what it is supposed to achieve. As I mentioned before, I knew why I am doing what I am doing. At the end of the day, VDP is meant to support the causes of the organization I am serving and the beneficiaries they serve. And another part is also learning to help others see the big picture so as to also sustain them in their work. Purpose always have a powerful impact on sustaining people and retaining volunteers.
10. Everyone is unique and has a story
I began as a VPM assuming that people needed to volunteer altruistically; without any motivations to get anything in return. But at one point in time, this mindset was challenged, as I come to realise that every single volunteer who comes through the door is unique and they have a story. Some are volunteering to pay it forward because they have benefitted from others’ giving as well. Some are volunteering because they themselves have been through hardship and they can identify with the pain some of the beneficiaries go through. Some volunteer to feel good about themselves. Everyone has a story to tell; they have different life experiences and different motivations for wanting to volunteer. In addition to that, I have also learned much from my volunteers; gaining life perspectives, knowledge, skills etc.
11. Multitasking and prioritizing skills
The work of a VPM is diverse and demanding. It requires you to do many things; from planning to budgeting, to marketing the programme, attending to enquiries, interviewing volunteers, retaining them, presenting on the organization and the volunteer programme, writing policies, supervision volunteers, just to name a few. At any given time, a VPM is constantly engaged with various tasks. And so, over the years, I have picked up the skill of being able to multitask, or at least being able to switch between and work on tasks quickly. It was confusing at first but I have slowly picked the skill up. It also trained me in being realistic with myself that I cannot achieve everyone in a day and forced me to learn prioritization skills.
Another important skill I have learnt is that of communication. As a VPM, we need to be able to communicate needs effectively and also bring our points across effectively, be it with internal or external partners. As a leader of volunteers, we need to be able to communicate the mission, vision, purpose, roles, responsibilities and expectations to the volunteers. At roadshows and presentations, we need to be apt at using various mediums to market our organizations and volunteer programme amidst the many others which are also seeking volunteers. We need to communicate with passion and inspire passion. We need to communicate well to ensure that projects and volunteer roles are scoped well so they can run well. Not only verbal communication, we also need to be equally apt in our written communications. Equally important is also the need to communicate with tact e.g. in rejecting volunteers.
13. Project and events management
As a VPM, we deal with a lot of projects and events. So it comes as no surprise that over the years, I have picked up considerate project and events management skills; knowing what is needed to make a project or event work well as well as the various possible pitfalls.
14. Partnership development skills
An integral part of a VPM’s work is to develop sustainable partnership. So it is crucial that we need to facilitate meaningful partnerships that last; partnerships where both parties needs are explored and met. And that takes skills to draw out and to nurture. I thank God for putting me through many partnership projects, some went well, some did not go well, to learn this.
15. Mindset and culture change
I am also learning skills in changing mindsets and culture. Working as a VPM, I have to work with things that people do not give second thought to; be it volunteering on the potential volunteers’ front or engaging volunteers on the staff’s front. Cultures and mindsets are very hard to change and it takes a great level of patience and tenacity to stick with it and try many ways to effect that change. This is one skill which I have learnt and am still learning.
16. Understanding perspective and needs
The work of a VPM requires interaction with a lot of people and so it requires a level of EQ to be able to understanding and see the perspective and needs of different people. It also requires us to have a good understanding of the needs of the various beneficiaries and programmes so we can seek out the right volunteers to lend support. This skill has also came in handy as I tried to put myself in the shoes of volunteers and staff as I developed forms, guidelines, toolkits and other resources to help them.
17. Information technology
With the demands of the work of a VPM, it can get overwhelming at times and so over the years, I have picked up relevant IT skills so I can rely on IT to help me achieve certain tasks which would otherwise be done manually. IT has played a significant role in my work and has helped me to “multiply” myself, taking over some repetitive tasks that I would otherwise have to do myself if not for IT.
18. Interviewing and selection
A key role of a VPM is in interviewing and selection the right volunteers with the right skills and availability to be placed in the right place and programme at the right time. The success of the volunteer programme almost rely on the right placement so it is imperative that a VPM has to have the skills to be able to interview potential volunteers, dive below the surface of cliche answers to uncover volunteers’ motivation to volunteer, their preferences and expectations and select and place them. While still not being a mentalist or someone apt at “reading” people, years of working as a VPM has honed my skills of assessing people.
19. Facilitation skills
In number 1, I had mentioned that I am a natural introvert. So naturally, when it comes to conducting and facilitating training, meetings and debriefs, it can get rather unnerving; I also worry what the next questions should be to keep the session going. But thank God that over the years, my ministry and work experiences have also helped me to hone skills in not only planning these training sessions and meetings, but also in the delivery and facilitation of these and of debriefs.
20. Teambuilding skills
A VPM’s work involves that of bringing people who otherwise do not know each other into an integrated team to work towards a common goal. And so, I have learnt and am still learning valuable team building skills in helping to bring people together and facilitate cooperation and bringing their personalities, skills, experience, knowledge, insights into an integral whole to achieve a common good.
21. Management skills
As I end off this reflection, I also thank God for the various management skills I have also picked up and still honing because of the requirements of my work as a VPM. These include among the many other skills, planning skills; policy writing skills; critical thinking and work process design skills.
22. Administrative skills
I have also grown in my administrative skills over the years because of the many administrative follow-ups I need to do as a VPM.
As I reflect, the last 10 plus years of working have grown me. One of my life verses is Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord , “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Despite the various ups and downs I faced in my work, I can see how it was meant for my good. I have overcome many personal challenges in my life as a result of this growth. God has a reason and purpose for every season of your work, regardless whether you know it or not. He will lead you, guide you and grow you.
Volunteer Development & Partnerships Professional
James is the Lead Thrive-Synergist & Founder of Emmaus Strategies; a social enterprise that “fuels good”. It does this through Mental Well-Being programmes for individuals and organizations, as well as Strategic Volunteer Partnerships consultancy and training for non-profits.