The right-hand missing problem


Livija Rojc Štremfelj


Having enjoyed the first ERNOP Science and Society Seminar on Sustaining Voluntary Energy by Professor Lucas Meys from Rotterdam School of Management, I found myself pondering upon the volunteer management situation in Slovenia. If I incorporate the learnings and conclusions from the fruitful discussion after the webinar, maybe I am closer to finding a solution to one of the biggest problems Slovenia faces – namely that every day at least one new NGO is established, which is a lot for a two million country.

The growth of the sector seems unstoppable, 500 new NGOs establish every year. In 2009 we had 22, 099 NGOs, in February 2021 there were 27, 971. Interestingly enough, we still roam in the dark when finding reasons for the growth

Being active in the voluntary sector for more than two decades and observing it, I have already formed several hypotheses of why this problem persists. As addressed by Meys, the key lies perhaps in the transfer of senior volunteer energy to a younger generation. We should communicate to them when it is time to go and let others do the work instead of them. This is a successful manner to maintain the vast volunteer energy of all the others who want to take part in the organisation’s activities.

I call this problem the right-hand missing problem – we have to confront it when the senior volunteers, often in leading positions, unlike their colleagues in the profit world, forget to raise a right-hand person or even do not want to have a right-hand person, a person that they would trust and that would help and support them in their work and, when the time comes, succeed them.

The number of organisations where I detected the ‘right hand missing’ problem is many. As stated by Professor Meys, if they do not integrate new volunteer energy, the young or the new leave and establish a new organisation with a very similar mission. This is understandable, everyone leaves if not being listened to and not being appreciated.

The volunteer energy is consequently transferred to a young start-up NGO that has to pass so many obstacles to become renowned and recognised by other volunteers as well as by financing bodies, donors and other supporters. Many cannot cope with the pressures and give up. Many are forced to do services outside their mission to survive. Those who are aware of this long-distance race reach their goal but being hindered by their ‘Founder’s syndrome’ again forget to raise a right-hand person.

To my view, the solution to this vicious circle of the ‘right hand missing’ problem is in the education and training of NGO leaders and awareness-raising on strategic volunteer management among the NGOs. That is surely one of the reasons why we in Slovenia face such a high number of emerging charities, resulting in unnecessary competition among them, a lot of struggle for the young potential and slow, often invisible, dying-off of bigger organisations with better infrastructures, but with fainting volunteer energy.

There is so much energy we should and could take advantage of to help those in need. Maybe the first step towards the change would simply be our ‘willingness to realize how unimportant we are compared to the task’, which is one of the basic competencies of NGO leaders according to the Peter Drucker’s Managing the nonprofit organization: Principles and practices.

Taking part in this webinar convinced me that academic research on the issues of the sector is key for a sector to mature. Integrating their work into our practice make it easier to solve the issues and comprehend our way of working of us working in the voluntary sector.

Livija Rojc Štremfelj is director at Agencija Lars, a Slovenian private institution with a focus on developing non-profit organizations

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