The Unwritten Rules of the Voluntary Organisation

By November 21, 2015Business, My thougts, Non-profit

Running YENA for just over two years now has been a truly eye opening experience. The things I’ve learnt in comparison to running a for-profit company have been completely unique to the social enterprise and voluntary sector – hugely valuable unwritten rules that I think are too important not to share, so that you can make your voluntary, pro-bono, charity or social enterprise projects go as smoothly as possible.

Set Expectations

It is incredibly important to set the expectations, both that you expect from your team and to agree on what your team expects from you/their work for the organisation. In doing so you iron out a multitude of problems before they ever happen, including awkward conversations of lack of commitment etc. If you can afford it, it’s worth getting an agreement drawn up, or at least write one yourself to act as a promise document, that outlines what you all expect to happen. I call this a ‘relationship agreement’. It gives you an outline of what you both expect, and what will happen if those terms are broken, including ‘rights to resign’ each other, time scales of delivery and the process should any of this need addressing at any point.

Be Appreciative

A grave error many charities or voluntary organisations make far more often than they should is that they simply don’t show appreciation for those who are giving up their time or money for the good of the cause. That really shouldn’t happen. Having been on both sides of business spectrum – for profit and not for profit – I feel like I have a good idea of what both should want. Therefore through YENA my rule is always to ask “What can I do for you?” before asking what they aim to reciprocate. That way, you end up with a happy team that, as a result, put in better work for your organisation. Ultimately, avoiding this tip can end in a lot of love loss between you and your volunteers, which can be damaging to progress and the brand as a whole.

Quality Over Quantity

From experience, I can certainly say that finding people who are committed and deliver real value to your organisation are definitely preferred over having 50 volunteers who don’t really do anything. The relationship agreement will sort the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’ in this case and avoid any future difficulties in addressing problems. Your initial process in on-boarding a new volunteer, trustee, patron, advisor or anyone else, should include an assessment of their other career demands. If they are working 16 hours a day on other projects it’s unlikely they’ll be able to be at every meeting. They may be able to help with contacts or resources instead of labour, if so that’s fine, be appreciative and outline what they’re going to do before starting the relationship.

The ‘quality over quantity’ rule also helps avoid a huge hierarchy when there is little need for one. While the rule in volunteer orgs is that ‘many hands make light work’ it’s also true in my experience that those hands need to be autonomous in their own roles. Reporting up a chain of command stifles progress and makes for a team that feel like cogs in a wheel when your organisation is likely the opposite to that.

Communicate (Nicely!)

I shouldn’t really have to write this section as I expect everyone to be nice in running a social enterprise. However, in my experience, often due to the lack of principles above, there have been disagreements due to miscommunication or non-communication. Making changes to the way an organisation works is fine, especially as a start-up/small team, you’re expected to pivot all the time to achieve your goals. However making sure that everyone is informed of these changes is of utmost importance. Coming up with processes and systems to ensure that happens is key. Tools like Slack can really help in group comms for a voluntary organisation – I’m a big fan as it’s free and helps keep conversations on track, while remaining rather informal.

KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)

Keeping it simple is my final point here. Over-complications are not needed. You don’t need meetings to organise a meeting. You don’t need to have a phone call to organise the meeting where you’re going to organise a meeting.  You get my point…

Essentially a voluntary, non-profit organisation, at a very small scale, is essentially a group of friends/people coming together to work on something they believe in. Keep this in mind when you’re growing, developing and delivering your project. Remember it at the end, and celebrate your success.