It’s widely acknowledged that words have power. It’s also true that the language of volunteerism and volunteer engagement has struggled to define and differentiate itself. Just look at the number of job titles we hold – volunteer co-ordinator, volunteer administrator, volunteer manager, volunteer development manager, volunteer engagement manager, director of volunteers, head of volunteers – and that’s before we use the word volunteering instead of volunteers! All these titles get used at different levels and with different responsibilities, meaning no consistency of terminology to describe what any of us do and are responsible for. No wonder nobody understands us!
As a profession, we need to be very clear in communicating who we are and what we do, using language as an effective influencing tool. We diminish our perceived value if we are unable to articulate the skill, potential and impact of what we amplify, steward and create when we successfully involve. Furthermore, when we define ourselves and our work, we clarify who and what we are not, as well as what we are. This two-fold illumination gives focus to the most powerful expressions of what volunteer engagement is capable of achieving.
To that end, this Points of View presents our thoughts on the words and phrases that no longer serve the volunteer engagement profession – and, in fact, may actually hurt us. We review and present new ways to communicate about our field. Beyond the simplistic and basic, we argue that a committed and consistent change in the language used by leaders of volunteers could be transformative for us all.
Let’s Start with Three Key Word Groupings
We start by organizing our lists into three key groupings based on the nature of the words and phrases: Appropriation & Involvement of Volunteers; What We Do; and Who We Are. We then provide our rationale on why each is problematic and alternatives we recommend using instead.
1. Appropriation & Involvement of Volunteers:
A. Framing volunteers as “my volunteers/our volunteers”
The problem: Using any pronoun that denotes ownership of volunteers like “my” or “our” is limiting. It frames volunteers as not being autonomous agents or limited to a one-dimensional identity, similar to when we arbitrarily (and often falsely) separate volunteers from donors or other supporters.
The alternative: Insert your organization’s name before the word volunteers, for example “Canadian Cancer Society volunteers.” These are people supporting the entire organization, regardless of their particular role or who they’re working with.
B. “Using” volunteers
The problem: This one should be pretty self-explanatory, if not, please take a look at this blog from Rob written back in 2011.
The alternative: “Using” typically denotes a one-sided transaction, often of something considered lacking in particular value and disposable. So perhaps indeed, you do “use” volunteers, but wouldn’t you rather involve, engage, and empower them? Volunteers are a reflection of your community, your supporters and stakeholders and should be deeply involved in your organization.
2. What We Do:
A. Volunteer Engagement (VE) is the Human Resources (HR) of the nonprofit world.
The problem: Uh, nope. HR is the HR of the nonprofit world. VE uses some HR-ish practices as we screen volunteers but what we actually do is much more aligned with major gift fundraisers when we consider that we are recruiting donors into our organization to enable it with the gift of their time and talents. We must also address the fact that screening for HR and VE take place on very different levels, within very different realities and are conducted with very different ethos. HR’s job is to screen out, until a candidate who meets the criteria they are looking for is found. Conversely, VE screens in, having the flexibility to identify alternate options and create new opportunities. Because what we’re looking for is the sweet spot between what organizations need and what that individual is best suited to contribute towards.
The solution: Talk about Volunteer Engagement as a strategy and an investment that pays real dividends: Volunteer Engagement is a strategic investment that enables organizations to partner with time donors to fulfill their mission.
B. Run a “program”
The problem: Does your organization run a ‘donor program’? How about a ‘staff program’? “No” to both? Perhaps that’s because these are groups of contributors rather than a program that’s run or because they’re resources that enable everything else to happen. Volunteers run programs, they aren’t one.
The alternative: Talking about Volunteer Engagement as a strategic enabler, an organizational investment that allows you to tap into exponential resources from people who believe enough in your mission that they want to participate in it and contribute to its success.
3. Who We Are:
A. Administration vs Management vs Engagement
The problem: A lack of consistency and understanding of the wording in our profession and roles leads to confusion, ignorance, and little progress in establishing the profession as central to success. Specifically, using the word ‘administrator’ or ‘co-ordinator’ places our work firmly within the administrative and implementation side of things which also, in the majority of cases, removes us away from any strategic level of functioning or input.
(Note: We’re not touching the Coordinator/Manager/Director conundrum here, but would recommend you review our previous Points of View article on “Laddering” in the profession for a discussion on advancing into more senior roles within the profession.)
The alternative: Don’t get trendy and don’t box yourself into a corner. Regardless of your actual title, be clear about what your role can help achieve and contribute to as well as the many positive impacts that come from having you involved in strategic decision-making, planning discussions, and debriefs.
B. Training non-VE staff in VE
The problem: Nope again! We’re not training staff how to do our job; we’re training them how to be strong partners to volunteers and how to effectively support and work with team members who do not have the benefit of being ‘in the trenches’ day in/day out like full-time staff and who get to focus on their particular area of work or project in a dedicated way.
Basically, it speaks to the question of our role and what we do. For example, in a large organization, we may not be the direct supervisor of all volunteers – other paid staff are. So if we are coaching/training in 'volunteer management,' does that mean they're adjunct volunteer managers? Where does that leave us? It's dangerous language that we need to stop using because it reinforces the belief that Volunteer Engagement is easy if we can train anyone to do it. There then becomes a risk that staff have basic knowledge of how to get the best from volunteers but don’t have the wider strategic knowledge and understanding to move volunteer engagement forward across the organisation.
The alternative: The language we should be using embraces setting staff up to be successful 'partners' to volunteers. You could interchange that with 'supervisor' etc. But we're giving away our power when we say that we are training other staff in 'volunteer management.' We can inform them about trends in volunteerism, general best practices, and certainly direct feedback from volunteers in the organization – but anything more than that is untrue and dangerous.
Now it’s your turn! We’d love to hear about the words and phrases you’ve struck from your lexicon.
Post Script: We’d like to dedicate this feisty Points of View to Susan J. Ellis, whose spirit we honour and whose teachings we will never forget.