Working on the organisational structure with the volunteers

Some more blog posts from Rick in Tanzania:

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Yesterday we had a second meeting with the volunteers. At the first one, a week ago, after introducing myself and explaining my role, I started off by giving telling them of my thoughts and feelings about the organisation. As my Swahili is embarrassingly poor considering how many lessons I have had and as a lot of those present speak little or no English, Nas, the Executive Chairman, translated for me.

After saying how impressed I was by so much of KCC I turned to the problems which Molly’s Network and I had identified, in particular the lack of clarity and written procedures and what I think the next step must be. I was glad to hear a lot of agreement.

I then presented an organisational chart which I had drawn up after a few discussions with Nas and Rashid, the General Secretary, and included not just a picture of the present (implicit) structure but also my suggestions for changes. For example that they need someone to take minutes at meetings of the Board of Directors (they haven’t been doing this and so – as is to be expected – people interpret decisions differently or they get forgotten). This prompted a really good discussion with comments on what the volunteers thought was missing, who could fill the vacant positions etc. Besides presenting the chart and getting feedback on it, I was keen that they become familiar and feel confident with a model of working which on the one side encourages consultation but also confirms that the Board of Directors is where the final decisions will be made.

I emphasised that the chart is only a picture, a representation of KCC which is not perfect and can always be changed, but that it’s important that everybody has the same or a similar picture in their heads. When I said that I assumed everybody has had a different picture in their heads, there was a lot of laughter in agreement.

Yesterday’s event was more of a workshop. Unfortunately as we were about to begin, there was a power cut which lasted until evening, one of the many which seem to occur at least daily at the moment. So I couldn’t show the changes made to the organisational chart after their suggestions had been discussed at the Board of Directors. I had really wanted to do this as I know from personal experience that if there’s anything worse for an employee than not being consulted then it’s when having been consulted the suggestions and requests are ignored without an explanation. At the workshop we divided the volunteers into three groups according to the major departments and I asked them to list all the tasks performed in there. Afterwards they presented the results to the whole group. Nas and in particular Rashid got very nervous about my next step. I asked the volunteers to say who does or should do each task. Nas and Rashid were worried I was letting the volunteers decide who does what. I think and hope that I was quite clear about this though. The people being allocated the tasks (which of course they will be already doing in most cases) must have the opportunity to say if they want to do them and if they feel able to do them. And of course also here it’s the Board who make the final decision.

It was a good meeting again going on for almost five hours with a break for lunch together. (If they’re not getting paid then at least they get a free lunch). There was a bit of coming and going; occasionally a young child being was breast fed or handed around. But there was a high level of concentration anyway.

This Saturday far more Swahili was spoken and so I didn’t understand a lot that was said. But after a while I realised this had its good side as it had the great advantage that Rashid and Nas had to take more responsibility for eh process we were going through and in this way gain experience to be able to do this sort of workshop themselves another time. My role became one of giving them tips, answering their questions and generally strengthening their resolve. A good day again.

Monday, 2 June 2014
Volunteering, then and now 

One of the things which impresses all visitors to KCC is that the organisation has from the beginning been run by volunteers. Effectively there are no paid staff – although many, if not all of them, need the money. Altogether there are about thirty volunteers with responsible jobs to do and many others who are around and help out when needed. Many of them spend numerous hours in the week in KCC, having no job to go to and finding this a satisfying way to spend their time. For some things they get travel expenses or something for food; last year many of them received some money, but as I described in my last blogs this triggered off a crisis in the organisation and the funder has stopped further payments, at least for the moment.

KCC reminds me a lot on my own experience as a volunteer when I worked for Bristol Cyrenians after finishing university and having spent years in the sheltered halls of learning wanted to do something different before starting on a ‘career’. That was 40 years ago!! And of course in a totally different world than now. Like the volunteers in KCC we were fired by a pioneering spirit; we wanted to change the world; we worked long hours for next to nothing and our workmates were our friends. Some of the themes have changed (we didn’t talk about sustainability and protecting the environment) and we were more overtly political but some things are similar and it’s great to encounter them again, for example grass roots democracy in action. I loved it then – I still regard it as one of the best times of my life. And here in KCC I’m experiencing it all again. As an outsider, of course, (although the people are so welcoming, that many would probably consider me part of the KCC community) and with a lot more experience and a lot less naivety (I won’t claim to have lost all of that).

KCC doesn’t appear to have any real problems recruiting volunteers. It seems to happen largely organically with people coming round, getting involved in some way or other, being given something to do and, if it works out, giving them a job with more responsibility and so on. There’s a great belief that everyone has some skill or other to develop and to offer and that it is important to find out what that is (they have someone responsible for ‘talent development’). The local volunteers come from Kigamboni; some of them came to begin with as homeless children via the outreach programme and stayed. There are international volunteers as well who seem to be much appreciated (in the Cyrenians as well; some of us fell in love with them and here it seems too). They can often bring in something new and different, e.g. one offered karate classes. Of course there is sometimes a problem of having a vacancy in the organisation but no one with the right skills and interests at the moment. In the course of my work here however I’ve made a couple of suggestions for new posts and suitable candidates prepared to do the job were quickly found.

There are two major problems confronting KCC with its system based on volunteers. One is that people need money to live and if they don’t get any from KCC and have the opportunity to earn some somewhere else they tend to leave. Secondly, the skills needed to run as large and complex an organisation as KCC is now, do not just grow from within the organisation automatically, but usually need some sort of input from outside.

For the second problem there are possibly solutions at hand. Local experts funded by firms as part of their corporate social responsibility policies, such as Molly’s Network, can guide and assist organisations in acquiring management skills. International volunteers with management experience such as myself, can be an invaluable complement to this. The experience of ‘Managers für Menschen’, the organisation in Germany which found me this placement, suggests that there is a lot of interest and potential in placements such as mine. Finally there are various organisations here which offer training courses, also in management related subjects, for free or which would cover the costs of such courses for KCC-volunteers.

The other problem is money and this is much more intractable and – as we have seen – conflictive.

And if they do manage to get money to pay at least some of the volunteers, will they manage to blend the two cultures – paid and voluntary – together? Will the present enthusiasm and dedication get subverted by mammon? I know of examples where this is not the case and paid staff and volunteers work happily side by side, such as in BAS, the advisory service for refugees in Basel. But in Basel the volunteers have an alternative source of income or are doing it to gain experience as lawyers etc.. I’m not sure how it will work here, where the volunteers hardly have alternative sources of income.

I can’t help thinking of the animated debate which we had with our neighbours,  just before I left for Tanzania about the idea of a basic income from the state for everybody. If they had that here, KCC could continue as it does now. And to keep that discussion going – KCC is a great example that people don’t need to be enticed to work by a wage. If the organisation has other attractive offers – friendship, possibilities to share one’s skills etc., that is incentive enough, as long as one has enough to live on.

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