Professional associations, certifications, and various iterations of member-based affiliation groups have existed within the field of Volunteer Engagement for decades, ranging from the informal and casual to formal and paid. Over the years there has been an ebb and flow of the success, longevity, and level of participation in any and all of these groups. You could say that the two-steps forward, one-step back dance we seem to continually do is the Volunteer Engagement Cha-Cha!
We have both been in the profession for some time and recognize this constant churning as the norm. Yet to us it seems more exaggerated compared to other non-profit professions. Consider, for example, the longevity of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (50-plus years old) and the Institute of Fundraising in the UK (in existence since 1983).
At any given time around the world, some Volunteer Engagement professional associations are on a high but others are on a low or closing down, with little rhyme or reason for why and even less indication of when things will shift again. This is concerning for a number of reasons, not least of which is that as a profession one of our chief complaints is lack of movement forward and momentum. So we have to ask: Is our inability to realize progress directly connected to the instability of our professional associations?
Professional organizations defined
Let’s start with a primer: What are professional associations and similar organizations? What is their purpose? And what do they offer?
There are typically understood to be four types of professional associations: member-benefit, designation-granting, certifying bodies, and professional regulatory bodies. In Volunteer Engagement, we have three of the four, having no regulatory body because there are no statutes (laws) that govern the profession.
Type of Professional Association
DOVIAs, AVAs, provincial/statewide and national groups
PAVRO (Ontario), MAVA (Minnesota), TAVA (Toronto), AL!VE, AVM (UK), NAVSM (UK), AVSM (UK)1
Colleges and some Professional Associations and Volunteer Centres offering designations upon completion of an introductory program to learn a profession (ie a diploma)
Conestoga College’s Volunteer Management Certificate in Canada
Different from designations, certifications typically competence
Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration (CCVA)
Professional Regulatory Bodies
When a profession is governed by law, this body oversees the licensing, etc of professionals
None (that we are aware of!)
In our experience, associations struggle due to two key challenges: participation and value. Participation covers not only membership, or lack thereof, but also the involvement of members in leadership roles required to deliver on programs, advocacy, and research - typically the hallmarks of what professional associations offer. This leads to a low-value offering for members, further exasperating the ability to invest in member offerings.
Underlying both of these issues are two truths:
- Volunteer Engagement professionals are like the old adage about shoemaker’s children having no shoes. Just like the shoemaker’s children who have no shoes, Volunteer Engagement associations have no volunteers. There are perennial issues with not enough of us stepping forward and donating our time to support, lead, and keep our associations vibrant.
- Volunteer Engagement professionals seem more reluctant to invest in our own professional development than other professionals. It is common, for example, for membership dues to professional associations to be paid from the funds of the Volunteer Manager’s employer and not their own personal income. (Editor's Note: Erin wanted to write something more strongly worded here, but Rob wisely talked her down!)
It could be argued that we will never see the kind of transformation – or, quite frankly, any changes – without a significant change in the level we invest in our professional associations and ourselves. It could also be said that our constantly fluctuating highs and lows are holding us back because: 1) we have no strong pipelines for nurturing and mentoring the next generation; 2) there is no voice keeping the interests and perspective of leaders of volunteers present in conversations on current topics; and 3) there is no possibility for improvement when little research is being done and disseminated.
Why should we care?
Professional associations exist to provide a number of benefits to not only their membership but to the profession at large. Consider:
Rightly or wrongly, Volunteer Engagement is still viewed as a very isolating role. Professional associations play a key role in connecting members, whether through informal networking, events, and conferences or peer-to-peer mentoring.
Career advancement is as much who you know as what you know; without professional associations, the opportunities to connect, network, and learn would be vastly reduced.
Political clout and influence
It may be a cliché but we are stronger together. Professional associations provide an important way for leaders to connect, share, and influence. Working together, members can take a stance on important issues affecting volunteer engagement, whether originating from within the sector, media coverage of relevant issues, or because of government policy or proposed legislation.
Leaders of Volunteer Engagement are often reluctant to speak out on their own. But together, through our associations, we can not only speak up but amplify our voices to increase the chances of affecting real change on issues that matter to us.
“A 2006 study published by Statistics Canada found that innovative firms refer to industry associations almost 10 times more frequently than federal government research institutes and up to 4.4 times more frequently than universities for information, solutions and business ideas.” (https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/associations)
It has been said before but is worth saying again that the mountain of what we don’t know about Volunteer Engagement towers over the anthill that we do know. Some associations have invested in expanding our knowledge - like MAVA’s recent work on job equity between leaders of volunteer engagement and other non-profit professionals. Such examples are, however, rare.
With a rapidly-evolving landscape and a continual increase in the sophistication and expectations of volunteers, research is a critical investment we must make if we are to stay relevant and move forward. This cannot be overstated.
Training and development
We have both benefitted immensely throughout our careers from the training and development opportunities accessed through associations we have belonged to. From conferences to online learning to traditional training to volunteering opportunities in leadership and board positions, associations most often provide relevant learning for leaders of volunteer engagement, especially learning that goes beyond the basics of our field and expands into more advanced topics.
That’s just four ways in which professional associations are vital to our field, to its continuation and growing strength and depth of knowledge and practice. Without our associations we would all be so much weaker, so much more isolated and so much quieter on issues that directly affect each and every one of us. We must not let them go quietly into the night.
What should we do about it?
We believe there are two things we can all do today to ensure our associations don’t disappear.
Invest our money
According to research done in the US across a range of industries, only about one-third of professionals have their association dues paid for by their employer. In other words, professionals in the majority of fields make a personal investment in their careers and associations. They spend their own money on their membership dues. The may even invest these private funds in learning and development - for example, meeting the cost of undergoing their profession-specific credentialing.
As we noted earlier, this seems to be unusual in Volunteer Engagement, with the majority of association memberships and professional development costs paid for by a Volunteer Manager's employer. Where the employer doesn’t or won’t meet these costs, then Volunteer Engagement Professionals seem less likely to engage with their associations.
This isn’t good enough. Our associations live and die by our support. If we are genuinely committed to growing the professionalism and credibility of our field, then we must put our money where our mouth is and invest in keeping our associations alive. We purposely say "invest" because this isn’t about a cost to us but about the value for us. If we don’t spend just a small amount of our income to keep our associations going then we risk losing so much more than a few dollars or pounds further down the line.
Invest our time and effort
For a profession built on the idea that volunteerism builds civic society as well as benefits the individual, isn't it ironic that we often seem to have a shortage of people willing to step up and volunteer to lead our associations or contribute in other critical ways? But it's true. For the majority of the associations in our parts of the world who have struggled and even shut down, that dire action is due in large part to a lack of volunteers willing to be on the executive team, join conference committees, and step up as mentors. Right now, there are large urban centres across North America and Europe without any professional associations because no one is willing to invest the time and effort. Even this publication, one of the premiere sources of knowledge and sharing in the profession, has struggled for 19 years with a lack of comments that respond and add to articles (we’re hoping you’ll respond to this!).
Certainly there are lots of amazing things going on and being done outside of associations, such as informal conversations and coaching. However, these efforts can be almost impossible for those early in their careers or new to the profession to access, because there is no space for them to get to know these quiet leaders.
The last word
A 2015 study on the value and participation of millennials with professionals associations2 found that 74 percent of respondents under 40 years old believe professional associations and communities are useful, with 58 percent belonging to a professional organization currently and 78 percent intending to stay for at least two years. Which is to say there is hope for the future that the declines we often see aren’t due to a generational difference in how associations are valued.
We find this encouraging. It’s now down to all of us to create sustainable associations that are so relevant and dynamic that our peers of all generations want to belong.
Despite the past and present ups and downs of volunteer engagement professional associations, we believe that the future could be so much better. If we choose to care and invest our own time and money in our associations, we can surely move our associations from the Cha-Cha to an effortless, gliding, and impressive Foxtrot.
Shall we dance?
1 A fuller list of associations around the world can be found at https://www.energizeinc.com/directory/professional-associations/global