The year 2017 is behind us and a shiny new year lies ahead, full of promise and potential. But before we look to the future, we should take a moment to reflect on the year past, to look back at the journey taken over the last 12 months, and consider whether that journey is setting us in the right direction for the new year—both individually and as a profession.
Consider, then, these two questions:
- What has been your legacy as a leader of volunteers over the last 12 months?
- More broadly, what has been the legacy of the Volunteer Engagement profession?
A definition of a ‘legacy’
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a legacy as, “Something left or handed down by a predecessor.” In our volunteer engagement context, what are we passing to the future from our past? What difference have we made, what lessons have we learnt, what progress have we achieved that will help us as leaders and managers of volunteers make 2018 a success?
We’ve all inherited personal and professional legacies from those who came before us. Such legacies are rarely neutral and we often don’t use the lens they gives us to inform the big decisions which will, in turn, shape what our legacy will be.
At its heart, a legacy is about meaning and impact—the meaning of our work, the impact of our profession, and where that places us in the world. What, then, can we say about the legacy of those who lead volunteers?
A common refrain from Volunteer Engagement professionals is that we’re “undervalued and misunderstood.” This often results from a disconnect between the meaning and impact we think we’re adding to our workplaces, and what value others actually attach to our work. So let’s explore three reasons why this disconnect might exist and consider steps we might all take to bridge that gap throughout 2018.
Disconnect Reason No. 1: We focus on the wrong things
Legacies flow from our daily decisions and actions. All that we do over time determines and shapes the legacy we leave. This means we need to consider carefully what we focus on. Too often, and for too many of us, the things we prioritise don’t have the impact we think they do.
For example, we concentrate our time and attention on the bureaucracy and administrative side of the work, most often around the three big Rs: recruit, review for right fit, and recognise. We agonise over the wording and structure of application forms and volunteer agreements, and we obsess about policies and procedures. Sound familiar?
One of the results of spending too much time on such activities is that we can never get out of the weeds and begin working at a strategic level. Long-range planning, exploratory conversations, analysis, and feedback are how we grow and enhance our work. If we concentrate on operational details and the initial phases of a volunteer’s involvement, we become focused on the transactional aspects of involving volunteers and not on the transformational.
In 2018, we suggest that we all make some time to step back from the day-to-day. Perhaps try to understand the main challenges that senior managers and/or your board members are grappling with. Find ways to position yourself as a potential solution to their problems. Explore how volunteers could help to address these challenges, perhaps in new roles working alongside executives as they develop strategies for the future.
Disconnect Reason No. 2: We like being martyrs
If we had a penny for every time we’ve heard the line, “It’s not about me, it’s about the volunteers,” we’d be writing this from a sunny beach, sipping mai tai cocktails! When we overlook the fundamental fact that our level of power, influence, and value to our organizations is synonymous with that of volunteers, we are not only being short-sighted but we hold back the entire profession.
Well-known volunteer management author, trainer, and consultant Marilyn Mackenzie’s timeless reflection that volunteer managers suffer from ‘terminal niceness’ has never been truer or more damning. We must move beyond the ‘niceness’ to realize that advocating for ourselves, our role and our profession in fact reinforces the value of volunteers.
In 2018, make this the year you connect your work to the strategic and priority goals of your organization. Perhaps ask to make a presentation to senior management about the broader value and impact your work is having on the organization (profile in the community, social media following, donations).
Disconnect Reason No. 3: We haven’t evolved
Take a look at our peers in similar professions (fundraising is a great example) and compare their work now to 30 years ago. It’s like night and day, isn’t it? Today fundraisers have better status, better pay, more influence, and greater respect.
Yet that is simply not the case with Volunteer Engagement. We’re in the same place now that we were in 30 years ago—undervalued, underpaid, and more often than not marginalised.
Leaders of volunteers largely follow the same processes (Volunteer Development Cycle). And our days, with the exception of the introduction of the computers, revolve around interviewing and coming up with cheap and cheerful ways to celebrate National Volunteer Week.
What if you decided that this year you will dedicate one hour a week to reading an interesting article? What if you didn’t buy that coffee you always have in the morning, and instead use the money to take a skill-building workshop or buy a subscription to a professional journal? Can you eliminate, re-jig, or outsource some work that will allow you to spend one hour less interviewing and one hour more coaching a peer on a challenging situation with a volunteer they work with?
The importance of taking action now
If we want a different future for ourselves, we need to take action. Doing what we’ve always done will get what we’ve always got. We need to focus on doing a great job, delivering more impact, and demonstrating more meaning, more value, more worth in what we do. In 12 months’ time, we would argue that taking these steps would leave an amazing legacy from 2018, one that changes the perception of our profession.
As Carl Bard once said, “Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.”
Are you up for the challenge?