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The Volunteer Engagement Cha-Cha

The Volunteer Engagement Cha-Cha

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

General description



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

Certifying Bodies

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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: 

Peer support

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.” (


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?


To add or view comments

Tue, 10/15/2019
Great column! The ASAE Foundation recently announced a new round of funding available to research this topic: "The Scholarly Research Grants Program provides awards of up to $15,000 to meritorious proposals addressing research questions relevant to nonprofit membership and member-based association management. The grants are intended to support the research activities of those working (or matriculating) in an academic community, association management professionals, and consultants/private contractors in association management." See for more info.

Tue, 10/15/2019
A fascinating read, stimulating a number of reflections. Before I could work out what these reflections were, I ended up looking at the history of the CIPD in the UK...always useful lessons from history I was thinking... That was a fascinating read as well! The CIPD "started life in 1913 as the Welfare Workers’ Association (WWA) with 34 members...Welfare workers were concerned predominantly with the working conditions of female employees in the UK's factories". The analogy is that a VM professional body will initially be started by volunteers (rather that volunteer managers).That is, those seeking to ensure volunteers get a good deal from organisations that 'employ' there services. However, with most organisations operating effective VM engagement practices, the likelihood (and hope) is that this will never happen. Although there was a 'Volunteer Rights Enquiry' in the UK a few years back. So a volunteer management professional body might need to revisit championing the cause of volunteers rather than volunteer managers. Alternatively it will need a different inspiration to ignite it. Today the CIPD offers its members credibility in the HR profession, and an assurance to the wider world of work that its members are qualified and practicing ethically, according to its code of values. If members are found to be wanting then they can be removed from membership. Maybe this is the sort of clout needed by a VM professional body to draw people in...?

Thu, 10/31/2019
That's a really interesting perspective (as always) Stephen. Thanks for sharing. There have been efforts within AVM in the UK to credential member competence and ethics but it never really got anywhere. CVA in North America is perhaps the strongest such initiative the field has right now. It is also worth going back to our past issue about credentialling for the field to see some of the discussions there.

Tue, 10/15/2019
I'm excited by the prospect of someone in Volunteer Engagement participating in this grant/research! Please keep us posted. Some may recall the pre-conference Affinity Groups of yore through AVA (I participated in the AVA affinity group for zoos& aquariums, parks, performing arts, and cultural institutions/museums); perhaps the Points of Light conference could be a place to rekindle those sorts of gatherings as the conversation encouraged by the US-based AL1VE picks up steam. It looks like the deadline for POL proposals is this Friday 10/18. Is anyone in this group planning to submit?

Wed, 10/16/2019
Actually I think the challenges are bravery and an independent voice. I’ve had my time with associations, once as president and a few times as member. What got to me was the lack of a strong an able voice and a lack of courage to speak out when speaking out was required. A professional organisation should not kowtow to anyone. Representing your members and your profession is more important than snuggling up to others in the sector and playing nice all the time, as we tend to do as a profession. Advocacy takes guts and spirt and passion. I’ve been doing it for years but feel I have a more independent voice outside of these associations right now. In the age of social media, associations should have more power than ever. Yet only a small percentage of our profession even engages social media effectively. You can see it on here, on twitter, on Facebook. Same voices. Same tunes. Same dance. Which then leads to an echo chamber. It’s time to change the tune. Challenge those associations that claim to represent our sector. Be a voice for change in your own right. This article could have been written 15 years ago. It’s a shame that it has to be written still!

Thu, 10/17/2019
Cha-Cha indeed! And a big hurrah for your account of the past, and your arguments supporting a professional association. And for adding in the challenges. Yes, there is a cost, and yes, a professional association is also an investment for professional development. You make the point that as champions of volunteerism we are reluctant to demonstrate volunteer effort in maintaining professional associations. Developing political clout and maintaining that voice is not an easy dance to learn. Isn’t it time we raised the bar and membership fees to enable employment of a Secretary/Executive for the organisation – someone to do the work of preparing information, newsletters and press releases? How else will we get to Dance with the Stars and influence how volunteerism builds Civil Society?

Sat, 10/19/2019
As a state association President who just stepped down, I feel this so much. I had to step away because running an association (especially one with a chronic shortage of member leaders) is nearly impossible to do as an unpaid, part-time gig with no budget for support when I'm also working a full-time job, in grad school, and wanting to spend time with family. I've watched my local chapter be in decline, grow and flourish, and decline again -- all in the last 5 years. And most of that change stems from the strength of the volunteer leaders. I generally feel that it's the association's job to improve the value proposition before they can expect increased participation or membership. Of course, that's easier said than done when most associations have little to no budget, no dedicated administrative support, and struggle with leadership. Perhaps associations should look to fiscal sponsorship or back-office support models, such as that offered by Rainier Valley Corps - Could the leadership question indicate that VE professionals don't actually see themselves as leaders? That they don't see the same skill sets in themselves that would lend them to be able to manage a budget, design marketing, handle financial reporting, or build educational programs as other professions (fundraisers, accountants, HR managers, etc.)? Or is it that this job is a stepping stone to "bigger and better" and therefore the skill set and professional standards don't seem worth investing in? I wish I had the answers! Thanks, Rob & Erin, for laying out some concrete steps we can all take to build the profession. My additional challenge is to the "veterans" (which, with 7 years under my belt, I guess I am now??): make an effort to get to know new VE professionals in your community; share information; explicitly tell them why you've remained in your role -- why you view it as a profession, not just a job. What we talk about indicates what we value. No talk = low value. So, if we truly value professionalism, we've got to keep talking about it.

Mon, 10/21/2019
Building on the thought that a VM professional body needs to have a set of standards for its members to adhere to, the CIPD Code of Professional Conduct provides a helpful benchmark. The document states" We set high standards of entry for membership and require all of our members to adhere to the standards and behaviours (‘obligations’) set out in this Code of Professional Conduct." I would have thought VM professionals are more likely to pay fees to a membership body that has the capacity to assess the competence and standards of its members and the authority to remove those failing demonstrate or meet these.

Thu, 10/24/2019
First let me thank Rob and Erin for a great article that stimulated lots of memories and thoughts. Having worked in volunteer engagement for over 40 years many cords are vibrating. I was heavily involved in the start up of a local AVA and spent many years on and with the PAVR-O Board/Association. I am also going to use your article as part of the online Certificate course that I instruct for Ontario Learns as we do Professional Development focus in two of the courses and this article will frame some issues and get us talking about others. Two additional ideas surfaced for me: 1 - there is still a 'transient' nature to the role of manager of one thinks this is their life long mission or profession. With that backdrop how can we expect folks to join and commit to Associations? It would be interesting to see the actual turnover of membership in Associations...does it reflect this come and go from the field? 2. When those who are working in the field do not see it as permanent and can still get jobs without formal education/certificate ...why does profession matter? Combine these two thoughts and no standards or accountability as someone else mentioned in their post and it makes marketing very difficult. A nurse, dentist, doctor, accountant, etc. cannot be in the profession without proving their competence..and must continue to prove it during their tenure in the role. Not so for managers of volunteers. I also think continued low wages (in most cases) and mostly female workers has hindered any movement upwards. I am also thinking that we do not have what I would call a "Champion" out there who keeps pushing forward and never stops. Early in PAVR-O's creation an Advocacy Group started to do this ..and that too petered out. I took what I thought was important and focused on education/certificate from recognized college..hoping this might make a difference. It may have made some more knowledgeable but did not make the field into a profession. If the players as individuals are not professionals and leaders to push forward, how can we expect the Associations to be? If you make brownies out of artificial chocolate can you expect them to win prizes/taste the best there is? This is a worthwhile topic to discuss and I know your efforts here will help spark discussion...On a lighter note: I had trouble with the dances you picked...I never did the cha cha or foxtrot. So perhaps we also need to change the dance and the it rap today or am I still showing my age? I did the limbo, lover the dirty dancing movie, the line dance if your country...what is it today??? and maybe that's a challenge too. We are all dancing to different music and making our own moves. Keep the articles coming...

Tue, 10/29/2019
I love this dialogue- thank you to all who are commenting. Let's keep it going!