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The Genie in the Bottle

The Genie in the Bottle

Genie bottle

There is a long tradition in Volunteer Engagement of focusing on the things we want, the things we feel we don’t have. Whether it’s more power, resources or respect, we give an inordinate amount of our time, dialogue and effort as a profession to the things we perceive we lack. This got us wondering, as we lead up to International Volunteer Manager’s Day on November 5: “What would change if we got what we wanted?”  

The Genie in the Bottle Appears

Imagine a genie granted us wishes and we used them to get all the power we think we need, all the resources we request and all the respect we feel we deserve. What would actually change? What would be different?

Would we have more influence with the power we gain? What would that look like? A seat at the board / senior leadership table? To what end? The ability to tell paid staff colleagues what to do to deliver a better volunteer experience and then actually enforce it?

Would we be doing better work or having more impact with more resources at our disposal? What does that look like? How exactly would we spend the extra budget we might receive? Providing more for volunteer expenses? Buying more expensive volunteer management software? International travel to overseas conferences? More paid staff to work in the volunteering team (doing what)?

Would we be held in high regard by peers and public with the respect we have? Would kids grow up wanting to be a Volunteer Engagement Professional? Would we be considered heroes in our society, like paramedics, doctors, firefighters, nurses etc.? Would we be able to tell people what we do and have them understand straight away, rather than having to fudge it and say we are in HR? Would nobody ever ask us again if we get paid for doing what we do?

“Since Nothing is Free, to Each his Price”

Of course, if we get all we want then there may also be downsides. There are always dark sides, unintended consequences and unanticipated repercussions when things change. That shouldn’t be an excuse not to push for those changes, but to blindly believe that new challenges will not emerge, or that we’ll live in some utopian future, is naïve at best. As Rob wrote on his blog all the way back in 2014, there is always a dark side to our wishes.

Gore Vidal once wrote, “Since nothing is free, to each his price.” Have we asked ourselves what price we’re willing to pay for those things we think are so important? We suspect not.

It may, therefore, also be an insightful exercise to anticipate what our concerns would be in this new world, something that may uncover deeper or systemic issues that are more important to focus on. For example, if we became a true profession, perhaps we’d find ourselves under the glare of public and political scrutiny?

Consider all Consequences

In the UK, one of the consequences of professionalising fundraising was that the public held fundraisers to a higher standard of professional behaviour. When fundraising fell short of this, complaints grew and politicians started to sniff around, threatening statutory regulation and a legal crackdown on standards and behaviour.

Are we ready for that? Do we want to expose ourselves to such a situation? Is there a way of becoming (and being seen as) more professional if we avoid such a scenario? Should we be striving for this alternative approach instead? Or is all our talk of being professional and a profession really about something else (like what we get paid) and not the quality of the experience we deliver to volunteers?

It is also worth noting that, like many things, questions raised from years ago continue to ring true and prompt reflection, including:

  • Do we all want the same changes? If so, what are they specifically?
  • Who do these changes really serve?
  • What could we lose if these changes happen?
  • Are we advocating for the most important things? Are these the hills we ‘want to die on,’ as the saying goes?

To play the devil’s advocate – by pushing for certain things, whether it’s resources, salary, more rigorous standards, etc. – are we undermining ourselves by giving the impression that the work we’re currently doing is lacking in some way?

Be Careful What You Wish and Fight For 

As we’ve seen, questions must also be asked about whether we can even handle the things we espouse wanting. As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” Are we ready to have increased accountability, higher standards and rigour (we hope you say yes!)? How about public scrutiny? Revoking of credentials? Job loss? Barring from practice?

Obviously, we’re not encouraging the profession to limit its ambition, or to stop advocating. Indeed, it’s that fire that has pushed humans to new heights. What we’re asking for is to consider what’s behind the things we say we want, especially given we’ve been advocating for them for so long now. 

Finally, what does the future hold if we never get these things? What are we willing to let go of and what new dreams might we dream? If necessity is the mother of invention, what new creativity could be unleashed by not getting what we want?

We wish everyone a wonderful International Volunteer Manager’s Day on November 5th. We encourage you, as you’re advocating, to take a moment and reflect on these questions. Try and determine what is really important to you and the profession – and what’s worth fighting for and why.

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