Helping the people who help the people

Outside it’s a crisp and foggy Autumn morning, but here inside the Midnightsky studio it’s warm and inviting. In the middle of the room there is a long, wooden table offering almond croissants, hot chocolates and cups of tea.

I’ve been invited to sit down with Tracey O’Neill, Board member at the Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers (AAMoV) and Luke Hockley, Director of Midnightsky.

We’re going to hear the story of how AAMoV created itself a better chance of a successful future. And we’re going to hear how Midnightsky worked with AAMoV to help them find the clarity to take that opportunity.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start by explaining who is AAMoV and what they do.

AAMoV is the independent voice of volunteer leaders. Over the last 20 years AAMoV has grown into an Australasian network and is run entirelyby professional and passionate volunteers. Thenot-for-profitorganisation works across the community, in different sectors and organisations.

There are many thousands of volunteers in our communities. Each volunteer needs a manager to make sure that they have the support they need to be effective, safe and relevant. And in turn, each manager needs support to do their job well. As Tracey says, “If you want impact for volunteering, if you want your organisation to be safe and if you want your volunteers to be engaged, then you need someone with a high level of skills. And they need the resources.”

The volunteer sector has many managers who are ready to be challenged and learn some advanced leadership skills like, Strategic Planning, engaging with Executives and Board, and how to influence organisations. AAMoV provides professional development and also advocates for the appropriate resourcing of volunteer leaders.

So that’s what AAMoV does and why they do it.

Naming the sticking point

But before we go any further, consider this; some managers of volunteers are paid and some are unpaid. This means that the unpaid managers are volunteers themselves. Essentially, they are volunteer volunteer managers.

And across Australasia there are state peak bodies for volunteers and national peak bodies, whose mandates are to support volunteering and the outcomes for the community. That includes supporting the volunteer and paidvolunteer managers. However, AAMoV is the only peak body whose sole focus is to support volunteer managers.

AAMoV doesn’t want to duplicate, or compete with, the important work of the peak bodies. But AAMoV does recognise that there are some fundamental differences between their core purposes. It is this key difference that allows AAMoV to work directly with paid volunteer managers to make sure they receive the professional development and support that they need, and also work in partnership with the peak bodies who are developing the skills of unpaid volunteer managers.

But flashback to several months ago and the Board of AAMoV had not yet gained this clarity. They were getting stuck on a hard question; why should AAMoV exist? And that’s the key challenge that brought AAMoV to Midnightsky.

As Luke says to Tracey, “If I go back to the moment when you first spoke to me what I got was, ‘We know there’s a need for something in this sector but we’re not clear what part of that need we can fulfill, and how we can do it as a volunteer organisation without burning ourselves out or duplicating others.’ I could sense confusion and frustration that you were not quite getting there.”

Tracey agrees, “Either we could continue the way we’re going, or we would cease to exist because we were just not achieving anything. We’d already lost members because we weren’t giving them a clear message. The more the Board talked about it, the more we realised that we didn’t have any clarity around who we were. The Board agreed that a workshop sounded like a great idea.”

The good work started even before they got to the workshop. Luke shares one of his facilitation secrets. He says, “In this pre-workshop conversation, I’m asking, ‘what does this group need to get them where I want them by the time we meet?’ I get them to a point where they have processed enough information, and given me what I need, to get the most value on the day. Facilitation is what happens in the room, but facilitation is also what you set up everyone for success – including me! I also gave the Board a clear framework for where strategic goals, objectives and outcomes fit, which is separate to a workplan where all the activities fit.”

Tracey says, “Doing that piece of work in planning, that’s when we started getting excited. As a Board, we were defining who we were and who we wanted to be.”

Unsticking the sticking point

Through facilitated conversation, the workshop resolved the difficult but fundamental questions. There was a pivotal moment when Luke asked the group, do you need to represent the whole of the sector, or do you need to represent paid volunteer managers and leave the unpaid managers to someone else?

Tracey remembers, “It was the one point where we realised we could make a decision without all agreeing. We needed to detach our personal feelings to make the best decision for the sustainability of the organisation. Suddenly things felt achievable. Suddenly it felt like we can do this. And it gave us a pathway to create good relationships with the peak bodies.”

Luke agrees, “The Board was able to see that you were not going to desert that group of people, the unpaid volunteer managers. People were able to see that the decision to partner with other organisations was like an open door, not a closed door. That’s when people realised that you can have everything, you just don’t have to be responsible for everything.

The organisation’s new Vision was created, ‘The power of volunteering creates a just society’. And its Role is, ‘To unleash the power of volunteering by ensuring professional leaders of volunteers thrive.’

Tracey says, “We’re so passionate about our sector and what we contribute to the successful outcomes of volunteers. That whole wording of ‘unleashing the power’ really spoke to us.”

Creating a clear path

And it sounds like that passion and energy has already had an impact in the months since the workshop.

Tracey says, “We have now created our Objectives. We’ve developed really clear Board membership position descriptions and committees that those positions lead. We’ve articulated who is responsible for particular objectives in our Strategic Plan and how we report back to the Board. That’s made it really fantastic for us because it has shared the workload between the Board members. And it’s made it easy for us to make decisions on things that would have been difficult in the past.”

Now, it would be great to give you a fairy tale ending. It would be great to tell you that AAMoV has achieved everything in its Strategic Plan, that it has built deep and fruitful relationships with all the peak bodies, and that everyone is living happily ever after. But change and growth takes time and care. Happily, AAMoV are off to a good start.

As Tracey says, “It still feels really daunting. But we’re really excited. This process has enabled us to be really targeted about what we do. Before it felt like we were all just going to throw our hands up in the air and say it’s too hard. Now it doesn’t feel like giving up, it feels like giving it a go. We’ve got to do things differently and we’ve got to find ways to engage people. We’ve got to give it a red, hot go. We owe it to our members.”

As Tracey, Luke and I finish up our hot drinks and head out into the day we find that the morning fog has lifted and suddenly the skies are bright blue again. It certainly feels like a good day to give it a red, hot go. Particularly when you are helping to create smart, professional and thriving leaders in a caring, volunteering world.

by Cressida Bradley

Check out more stories in the category: Consult, In the Village