Shared Wisdom

It’s easy to think that all volunteer managers share very similar experiences but there can be enormous diversity between services. Adult’s services vs children’s services; rural vs metro; funded vs unfunded; inpatient versus community-visiting; government vs non-government organisation; large organisation vs small. Different contexts can bring different and often unique challenges that can leave a volunteer manager feeling different-to and perhaps even isolated-from their peers.

So what is the shared wisdom that all volunteer managers value? We asked experienced palliative care volunteer managers “what wisdom can you share with new managers about your role in palliative care volunteering?”

Kami Dibden, Central Coast LHD (Gosford)

“I never anticipated I would end up in a role working with Volunteers, but it has been one of the best and most rewarding, (but at times, so very challenging) times of my working life. The one piece of advice that I found so important is…‘don’t lose touch with your people, always take time for your people’. It is so easy for us, as Volunteer managers, especially when we come into a new role, to come in with great energy and ideas, keen and eager to make an impact and to get stuck behind a desk with the paperwork and administration. When you work with volunteers, these behaviours can quite quickly put your people off side and into defence mode. It is so important to take time to get to know your people, who they are, what they do, why they do it. Always take time for your people, if your job has volunteer management in it, make time to talk, chat, sit with and socialise with them and build a genuine relationship. If you do this and are supportive, encouraging and professional, your people will feel valued and motivated and inspired to deliver high quality service.

Janet Pearce, Far West LHD (Broken Hill)

“Travelling over 1,000km (by plane) from Broken Hill to Sydney I was very fortunate to able to spend several days with Palliative Care Volunteer Managers who provided me with a wealth of information, resources and conversations to guide me in setting up a Community Palliative Care Service in Broken Hill. Observing how the managers adapted and conceptualised their service to accommodate both the range of activities provided and diversity of cultural needs for both patients and volunteers was enlightening, especially given the unique geographic and demographic of Broken Hill. The generosity of those Palliative Care Volunteer Managers in sharing operational paperwork has been invaluable. Although I conceptualised documentation for my Health District and Community Palliative Care Volunteers, I did not have to ‘reinvent the wheel’.  So the most helpful advice I received when starting out came from experienced Volunteer Managers who were willing to share their time and knowledge!

Sarah Potter, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead

“View the Training as valuable time to get to know your volunteers. I’ve always thought it odd that we hire employees and volunteers based on maybe a couple of phone conversations and a short interview.  It shows our faith (perhaps misplaced) in our ability to assess another human being for suitability in a complex role and at times it is scary. I always comfort myself with the thought that I will have the time in training to really get to know the volunteers and it is during this time that I look for cues and indications that help me when I match a volunteer with a family and to manage the volunteers. I observe the shy ones and encourage them to participate more (but gently – they are volunteers and I always respect that they are giving their time and presence for nothing and don’t want to be ‘put on the spot’). I see which ones maybe talk too much, look for the true listeners. I listen to their responses to see if there are beliefs or attitudes that could be a concern. The questions they ask reveal a lot. The words they choose also reveal a lot.  I look for expressions. I look for their humour and/or seriousness. Who has had experiences in life that make them broad minded and accepting and who have had a more protected unexposed life. I try to never compartmentalise, I’ve seen great wisdom and sensitivity in the young. I love the training time to immerse myself in the gifts that each volunteer will bring to the role and to try and understand who they are a little bit more. It helps me such a lot in both matching them with a family but also in how I communicate with them, how much nurturing each will need, how much guidance and which ones have the potential to run off and be mavericks and who I will potentially have to ‘reign in’ a bit!  Getting to know your volunteers is one of the great joys of the job but don’t be fooled – as with all human relationships, even way down the track they can still do or say something totally unexpected and surprise you. It keeps you grounded and makes you realise your own biases and limitations in truly understanding others.

Anne-Marie Traynor, Calvary Kogarah

When I started in this role, I never realised how much I would enjoy working with volunteers. One of my initial goals was to create an environment where volunteers were considered an integral part of the Calvary team. This took time and lots of networking including asking staff where volunteers might be able to provide more support, inviting volunteers to staff functions e.g. BBQ, special celebrations, providing volunteers with information about educational opportunities and keeping them up to date with the hospital news via our regular newsletter. Over time this has paid off and our volunteers feel valued and staff acknowledge the incredible contribution they make. This sort of environment promotes satisfaction and encourages volunteer retention. A couple of other tips I would offer include the importance of ensuring volunteers understand the boundaries of their role. This means having clear guidelines and role descriptions so volunteers understand the ‘do and don’t’ which ensure a harmonious working relationship with staff. Often volunteers will say ‘they have become friends with their patients/carers’. When this language is used it is a red flag for me to clarify boundaries. With friendships it is a mutual relationship where both parties have some expectation of their needs been met, but the volunteer/ patient/carer relationship is one way, they are there to provide a service. Once this boundary is crossed, it opens the door to confusion about the role and also closure is more difficult with volunteers promising more than they should e.g. keeping contact with the carer once the patient has died. Get to know your volunteers and the best start is with their initial face to face training program, which provides an opportunity to see their strengths and future suitability for different roles and patient allocation. Connecting with the Managers of Volunteer Services network is a great support for new managers as we all are happy to share the knowledge and insights we have gathered along the way. We definitely don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel so always happy to share our resources. It’s a great place to debrief as the more experienced managers have probably encountered similar issues to the ones you may be facing. No one really understands what it’s like to work with volunteers like others in a similar role. The network meetings are something I never miss as there is so much wisdom in the group and it keeps me abreast of new standards and I often come away with fresh ideas from other services which I could possibly implement in my own service. And finally, don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ if someone wanting to volunteer is not really suitable for your service. Their gifts might be better utilised in another area. Managing a volunteer service will draw on all your resources, challenging at times but always very rewarding- knowing that what we do makes such a difference in the lives of our patients, their families and carers.