Addressing the Human Side of Risk Management in Volunteer Programs
The emergent discipline of risk management is no doubt a growing requirement that many working in volunteer management have been asked to address more and more in recent years. Done well, a rigorous approach likely seeks to minimise the occupational health and safety risks the volunteers face. In a mature environment, perhaps it even holistically looks at matters of overall volunteer program continuity such as withdrawn funding or volunteer retention. Done poorly, risk management is little more than a cursory ‘tick the box’ exercise of little value add.
Demystifying Risk: It’s Just Planning
While practitioners of risk can often be accused of adding layers of complexity to the process, the true value of risk management lies in its basic simplicity. Stripped back, risk management is purely about planning. So how can applying a risk lens in your planning future-proof your volunteer program? Rather than delve into a dry synopsis of risk fundamentals, a sustainable volunteer program can be best supported by a humanistic risk mindset rather than a technical risk skill.
So let’s bypass the myriad of risk tools and processes and focus on what’s important. Specific to your volunteer program, what can go wrong and what can cause it to happen? To frame some simplistic examples:
- A volunteer may be injured (the what) by being bitten by a dog (the cause)
- A volunteer may damage property (the what) because they used equipment incorrectly (the cause)
- Volunteer retention may fall (the what) due to disagreements with staff members (the cause)
While this sounds simple enough, the solutions seem self-evident. Surely the volunteer program simply needs to have mechanisms in place to address the causes of their risks. Things such as training, supervision and procedures are the norm in this regard.
Only here at this supposed end point of a risk process should we interrogate just how meaningful and sustainable our efforts have been. While as a desktop exercise, managing the risks across your volunteer program to this degree may derive a sense of comfort, it remains founded on a somewhat dubious assumption; the infallibility of humans.
Risk Management: An Exercise in Psychology
Simply put; humans think, they make decisions, they work outside of procedure and they forget their training. They take short cuts, they innovate better ways to perform their role, they become complacent and they have bias. Humans represent an impossibly complex variable in your volunteer program and to fail to plan for this as an exercise in risk is doing your program a disservice.
So let’s add an extra layer of thought to risk; understanding ‘the why’. What are the human factors that will drive the risks across your volunteer program? Almost exclusively, things that can go wrong across your volunteer program are the result of humans. To tackle ‘the why’; one must tackle human behaviour which rapidly moves into the realm of psychology.
As a good starting point, when looking at the risks that are present across your volunteer program, a truly innovative and impactful approach may seek to understand the why. That is to say, what are the human factors that drive the causes? For example:
- Why do your volunteers work outside of the processes?
If complacency is the underlying human factor, what strategies can you implement to combat a culture of complacency?
- Why do your volunteers make decisions beyond the scope of their authority?
If a sense of entitlement is the underlying human factor, what can you establish to negate that?
- Why do your volunteers and staff members clash?
If attribution bias is the underlying human factor, how can you create alignment and understanding?
Answering these sort of questions as an exercise in risk considers how human factors can undermine and damage your volunteer program. The answers are rarely easy but if done well, strategies can be devised that directly address what will truly cause your risks to eventuate.
Please share your experiences of how addressing human behaviour and decision making as an exercise in risk has benefited your volunteer program.