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Profession/Field of Volunteer Administration

Remembering Susan: Thoughts and Reflections on an International Influencer

Susan J. Ellis was more than a passionate advocate for the change that great volunteering could make, and more than a passionate voice for the influence that Volunteer Engagement professionals could make while forging that change.

She ‘walked the walk’ and ‘talked the talk.’ She invested time, money, and her expertise into the development of resources that have become the benchmark of volunteerism the world over.

But more than that, she was a generous soul with a heart that was driven to not only help build volunteerism in her home country – but the world over. Whenever the name ‘Susan J. Ellis’ is brought up at a volunteerism conference or a DOVIA meeting, stories are inevitably shared by volunteer leaders about the knowledge they learned from one of her publications, or the encouragement they personally received while meeting her at the Energize booth during a conference or over a quick chat at the conclusion of a workshop.

To celebrate Ellis’ life, her long-time colleague, friend, and fellow writer Andy Fryar, who serves as manuscript developer for e-Volunteerism, approached key volunteerism leaders from around the world and asked them to share their personal insights about the difference she made to volunteerism in their country – and to them personally. This unique e-Volunteerism feature presents stories and reflections from 10 volunteerism leaders on the influential lift of Susan J. Ellis and her life’s work.

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The Disruptive Volunteer Manager by Meridian Swift

In this Voices, co-editor Tracey O’Neill reviews a new book called The Disruptive Volunteer Manager by well-known volunteer manager Meridian Swift. As O’Neill explains, the new book lays out six steps to increase awareness of volunteers and to try and elevate volunteerism by disrupting the volunteer management norm in a forward-moving way. Swift, who has more than two decades of volunteer management experience, calls it a “step by step journey to setting a new normal, one in which leaders of volunteers unleash the potential that awaits.”  And O’Neill provides an assessment of Swift’s new book that promises to “reframe, redefine, reshape, and re-imagine” volunteer management.

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Stacking Up: How Volunteer Engagement Professionals Compare with Other Key Staff

Volunteer Engagement Professionals (VEPs) commonly feel underpaid and undervalued and believe that their work is misunderstood. In times like these, they often turn to organizations like the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) for support, education, and connection.

To better understand the issues facing VEPs, MAVA embarked upon an important research study in June 2017, a study designed to validate the experience many VEPs described and to examine root causes. MAVA learned that: 1) there truly are equity issues in how VEPs are received, paid, included, and understood in the workplace; 2) the lack of true understanding about the essential nature of volunteers and those who lead them undermines the effectiveness of nonprofits and government entities; and 3) there are affirmative steps that can be taken to address the issues.

This e-Volunteerism feature by MAVA’s Karmit Bulman provides a comprehensive review of this important research study, “Stacking Up: How Volunteer Engagement Professionals Compare with Other Key Staff."

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Passion, Not Mimicry

The disappointment began with a simple question: What are the significant issues facing volunteer managers today? And when the answers mimicked the exact same responses from 10 years before, volunteer management expert and Points of View co-author Rob Jackson’s heart sank: The profession of volunteer management hadn’t progressed at all over the last decade.

That was in 2007. Now, as Jackson and co-author Susan J. Ellis write, “it seems as if our profession is still stuck at the same stage of development. How are we ever going to succeed if we cannot collectively overcome the challenges that continue to dog us in our field?”

In this Points of View, Jackson and Ellis suggest a simple path toward change: Steer clear of the choice to mimic what others are doing and instead develop and follow a passion for volunteer management work by refocusing on its purpose and promise.

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Mistakes and Failures Are Our Greatest Teachers: Do We Make the Most of Them?

Volunteer engagement certainly encounters its fair share of mistakes and failures, which is part of life. But think about it: When was the last time you went to a conference workshop that focused on how someone failed? Don’t we most often focus instead on the successes we've had?

In this Points of View, Rob Jackson and Susan J. Ellis argue that while no one likes to admit – or recall – such uncomfortable experiences, we should learn from them and be willing to share the experiences of mistakes and failures with others. Activities without risk may seem safe, they point out, but “are actually dormant. Worse, they may no longer be helpful to your mission, which means that you are asking volunteers to waste their time.”

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The Professional Responsibility to Have and Share Opinions

Just recently, Rob had one of those conversations that sparked a long chain of thought. A colleague expressed the wish that professional associations for volunteer resource managers would ‘accredit’ volunteer management training in some formal way. The associations would vet and list ‘approved’ training providers so that their members would then be confident of hiring trainers who would deliver excellent learning experiences.

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Bridging the Divide Between Volunteer Management and Community Organizing

A community organizer is usually a social agitator who wants to build grassroots power. While a volunteer manager may be working toward social justice, the primary goal of this position is usually tied to a pre-determined objective, like service delivery or broader organizational support like fundraising. In practice, the roles often overlap. Both require a high level of interpersonal skills, insight into what motivates people, and the leadership to get those people to act in ways that benefit the community.

In this e-Volunteerism feature, author Aimee Inglis discusses the often fine line between the two fields and the tension this creates in the volunteer community. Inglis explains that “as a volunteer manager who is also trained in community organizing  and currently working at a nonprofit that organizes for social and economic justice and tenants’ rights  I have felt the line blur between the two fields. I have also felt the tension as both fields professionalize and learn the same lessons in silos where they would be stronger sharing notes.”

Inglis builds on her personal experiences as she examines not only the history of community organizing but also how community organizing and volunteer engagement have become part of the profession. Inglis also proposes ways for volunteer managers to bridge what she calls the unnecessary divide between these fields.


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