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“Laddering” in Volunteer Management: What It Is, and Why It May Be Important

“Laddering” in Volunteer Management: What It Is, and Why It May Be Important

If you’re reading this, our guess is you are a Volunteer Engagement Professional (VEP). Your job title might not say that, but that’s what you are: a professional committed to the effective and meaningful engagement of volunteers. Because of that you are less valuable and important than other staff at your organisation. The quality of your work is probably of a lower standard, too.



Of course that’s wrong! (but we had you worried for a minute though, didn’t we?) Your very existence as a VEP doesn’t mean you don’t do your job well, or that you have less value and importance to your organisation. Yet those are all hallmarks of being a second class citizen, a status most of us would say we hold in our organisations. It’s the elephant in the proverbial room – and one that is long overdue for a resolution.

A first step could be the recent study called “Job Equity” from the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA).The report’s author, MAVA’s Executive Director Karmit Bulman, examines how chief executives of non-profit and public sector organizations recruit, support, and resource four key positions, one of which is the VEP.  As e-Volunteerism first reported in our April – July 2018 issue, “Stacking Up: How Volunteer Engagement Professionals Compare with Other Key Staff,” Bulman found that:

  • VEPs are less likely than other posts to be part of leadership teams;
  • VEPs generally have lower salaries than their peers;
  • VEPs aren’t seen as impacting strategic planning or the bottom line; and 
  • VEP jobs are more likely to eliminated when money gets tight.

What can be done? Well, Bulman makes some suggestions in the MAVA research, and we encourage you to read those. And we think a key step to getting others to take VEPs more seriously would be more effective “laddering” for our field.

“Laddering” – What It Is and Why It’s Important

What do we mean by laddering? Simple. It’s the idea that there are clear steps into the profession and upward mobility of VEP roles in organisations and the sector. This would result in two immediate benefits:

  1. A career ladder (hence the name) to give people a clear entry point into VEP roles, with established minimum standards that would build expectations and rigour into the hiring and positioning of VEPs.
  2. A senior level of VEPs who manage junior VEPs and support on-the-job training and mentoring; this enables junior VEPs to progress in the profession and provides future career progression opportunities.

How would these two aspects of laddering help?

A Career Ladder for VEPs

As it happened with Rob, many fall into our profession by accident – not initially seeing themselves as being “in” volunteer management and remaining ignorant of the wider field that’s out there. However, in the last few years, we have noticed more people coming into the volunteer engagement profession as a deliberate career choice. These people don’t see this as a quick and easy way to get their foot in the door of the non-profit world before moving onto something “better;” rather, these individuals are committed to volunteerism and the potential of passionate people to effect meaningful change.

Imagine the difference it would make to have a seasoned VEP hiring more junior VEPs, and what that could mean to the calibre of people working in the profession. The main criteria of hiring a VEP would no longer be how nice their smile is or whether they themselves had ever volunteered before. What a welcome and important difference!

The trouble is, even as we’re starting to get people who actually chose to enter the profession, once they’re in, they have nowhere to go. That’s not to say that some VEPs don’t make a successful career out of their work; it’s just that without a clear and established career ladder, those successes are fewer than they should be and sometimes more down to luck and chance than anything else.

If we truly want to cast off the shackles of having second-class status, we need a career path to lend legitimacy and credibility to our work.

VEPs Reporting to VEPs

For those who stick around in the profession, where do they go? To lead volunteering in a bigger organisation? Move away from working with volunteers to a more senior management role that may have little to do with volunteers, even if it is focused on volunteers? And what does career progression look like? Head of volunteering at a national agency? Working as a consultant (an idea Rob finds amusing!)? Becoming a CEO?

Contrast this with other professions in the non-profit world, where there is a clear hierarchy of roles that enable not only career progression but specialisation as well. Fundraising, for example, gives people access to lots of different specializations and a varied route to becoming a fundraising director and sitting on a senior leadership team.

In addition to creating career progression opportunities, building a hierarchy where junior VEPs report in to more senior VEPs would support a number of positive outcomes. Chief among these is the daily hands-on mentoring and coaching. Whilst support from peers via AVAs, professional associations, etc. is valuable, it doesn't replace having a more experienced leader who can show you how to improve your practice every day and push you to stay current and informed.


Imagine, in your current role, that you reported to someone who not only understood Volunteer Engagement, but who also cared about it and could coach you. What difference would that make – not only to how long you stayed in the profession, but how advanced and sophisticated your practice becomes?

Now imagine there was a whole cohort of VEPs who had been reporting in to more experienced colleagues. That kind of tide could prove to be the tipping point our profession needs to finally become recognized and valued in the ways it deserves to be.

In closing, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think?  Do you agree with our thinking? What do you see as your VEP career ladder (or lack of one)? Do you have a senior VEP supporting you in your role? What difference has it made? Let us know. 



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