Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why your organization’s mission and core objectives are crucial to your volunteer program

Stephen Covey, in his book The 8th Habit, describes a poll of 23,000 employees drawn from a number of companies and industries. If you don’t have an affection for stats, the three points below might seem a little dry but Covey has an entertaining, although somewhat frightening, metaphor for it all further below. Some of the poll's findings were as follows:
  • Only 37% said they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why
  • Only 20% was enthusiastic about their department's and their organization's goal
  • Only 20% said they had a clear "line of sight" between their tasks and their team's and organization's goals.
Here is Covey’s way of describing it."If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and know exactly what they are supposed to do.” I wonder what results a poll of volunteers would yield.

As we grow to see volunteers as people who work for the benefit of an organization but do not get paid for it, we can look to the management practices of leaders of people who work for the benefit of an organization and do get paid for it. Although there certainly are differences, there are also many similarities. One area in which there are similarities relates to the importance of embracing your organization’s mission and core objectives.

Hopefully, your mission statement describes what the organization does at the core level. Objectives (or goals) also answer the question of what the organization does but they are smaller than a mission. Although, an objective might represent an important achievement, it is not the final achievement. There can be a number of objectives and goals to be achieved in order to achieve a mission, but there is usually only one mission. Your volunteer program can have its own objectives but they should always contribute to the organization mission.

You can’t always be over your volunteers’ shoulders when they need to make a decision about what to do or what not to do. If they are knowledgeable about the organization’s mission and core objectives however, the chance of them making the best decision increases. If you educate them on the mission and empower them to make some decisions about their work, they will become higher level volunteers, happier volunteers and tend to make the decisions that contribute to achieving the organization’s mission rather than detracting from it.

Southwest Airlines is by many definitions, a successful airline. While others have struggled to the point of bankruptcy, Southwest has been profitable for the past three decades. Herb Kelleher, the longest-serving CEO of Southwest, once told someone, “I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: We are THE low-cost airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.“Here’s an example,” he said. “Tracy from marketing comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entree on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. All we offer is peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken Caesar salad would be popular. What do you say?” The person stammered for a moment, so Kelleher responded: “You say, ‘Tracy, will adding that chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.’”

The core objective of being THE low-fare airline is very simply stated but it is powerful enough that it has guided the actions of Southwest’s employees for more than thirty years. Do your volunteers have such a statement that can guide them?

Although not as obvious as the things a manager does that contribute to the organization’s mission, good managers also pay close attention to avoid engaging in activities that do nothing to contribute to the organization’s mission. And there is good reason for this. Everything that gets done that does not contribute directly to the organizations’ mission or indirectly through core objectives is like a silent thief, stealing resources from the organization. Consider the following comments from volunteer sector consultant Martin Cowling in his article, Messing It Up: How Organisations Sabotage Their Volunteer Programs.

“For example, each year I conduct an annual survey of volunteer organisations, randomly selected from across Australia. I phone the agency and tell them I am interested in becoming a volunteer and then await (and record) their response. Consistently I find that less than one third of all organisations actually respond to my offers of assistance. Before a volunteer has even reached their door, it is effectively slammed shut!”

Now I imagine that those responsible for the management of volunteers in each of those organizations from the 2/3’s that did not respond are very busy people. I suspect that their day is filled with many tasks. The important question to address is whether or not each of those tasks are contributing in some way to the mission of the organization. If not, then the time and the other resources consumed in the pursuit of non-mission driven activities has stolen the time and other resources required to deal with a potential new volunteer in a timely fashion.

There are many ways in which a manager can feel busy without the effort contributing to the organization’s mission in a meaningful way. One that I have come to recognize as all too common is that of reporting. In some cases it is self-inflicted and in many cases it is imposed by bosses or funders. The next time you go to produce a report, ask yourself why you are generating that report. If ‘nice to know’ is any part of your answer then it is likely not making any real contribution to your organization’s mission. If you are required to produce a report, ask yourself how it addresses the mission or any of the core objectives. If you can’t come up with an answer ask whoever is requesting the report to explain it to you. If he or she can’t, send them a copy of this article.

I speak passionately about this because I have seen first-hand the difference it can make. A few years ago I looked at a series of reports for the Volunteer2 business on a weekly basis. One of the reports included how many people visited our website. We used this data in a meaningful way each time we updated the website but watching these numbers grow with each weekly report was an enjoyable experience for me. I looked forward to doing it, typically just after lunch on Fridays. I forget which book woke me up to the frivolity of this but it did not take much for the author to help me identify this as activity that did not foster any growth in the number of volunteers, volunteer management efficiencies, or professional management practices (our core objectives) nor contribute to overhead or profit. My routine of producing those reports ended that week. Now I put that time to use on tasks that make a contribution to our mission.

I have also seen first-hand how the complete adoption of mission and objectives and can help fulfill the vision of the organization. My mother lived her final days in Ian Anderson House, a hospice in a community that neighbored our own. As much as losing a loved one is difficult, it was what I would describe as a good death experience. Those that have experienced hospice care for someone close to them know what I mean. All of this motivated me to get a hospice established in my city of Burlington and as the founding chair, I had some of the greatest experiences of my life.

The mission of the hospice is a follows. “The hospice provides individuals who are dying and their families with high quality palliative care in a home-like setting meeting their physical, emotional and spiritual needs and making the last days of their lives together peaceful, comfortable and meaningful.”

Prior to hiring a staff and converting to a policy oriented board, the board was quite operational in nature and made many decisions as we sculpted what would eventually become the Carpenter Hospice. One core objective of the hospice board was that the hospice be as homelike as possible and from it many of the decisions that we made became easier. We simply asked ourselves, “Would we do it in our own homes?” When we considered adopting a practice that other hospices had of naming the bedrooms after significant donors, we did not. In each of our own homes the rooms are referred to with the name of the person whose room it belongs to; Paul’s room, Ingrid’s room etc. So that is what we did in the hospice. We also publicized our core objectives and when a decorator came forward with an idea of getting a number of decorators to volunteer their time to decorate each of the ten bedroom differently, we happily went forward with the idea since we decorate the bedrooms in our own home differently. Of course we had to make decisions to accept certain things that could pass this test such as doors wide enough to roll a bed through. In cases such that though, it was simply one core objective having a priority over another. Embracing our mission and our core objectives guided us as to what we should and should not do.

Should you have volunteer appreciation nights, fire volunteers, get criminal background checks, generate racial demographic reports on your volunteers, chat about personal things with your volunteers etc.? I don’t know. But if you run each of these questions through the filter of your organization’s mission and core objectives you should find yourself much closer to the answer.