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Jack of All Trades or Master of None?

Jack of All Trades or Master of None?


If you’re not familiar with the title of this article, it suggests that there are two types of people or even jobs – generalists and specialists. In looking at most professions, we see a mix of both. Yet when we look at Volunteer Engagement, we would argue that we only see generalists. 

While there may be specialization in industry — for example, hospitals versus social services, or in grassroots versus large national and international organizations — the Volunteer Engagement role and function really doesn’t change significantly. It’s the same three (3) R’s of recruit, recognize and retain just applied in a different setting, as if Volunteer Engagement was a standard, simplistic rinse, wash and repeat cycle. 

Why is this? And what might it mean for the profession and those in it?

Our Fundraising Colleagues

Consider our colleagues in fundraising (or development, as some call it). While there are general ‘fundraisers,’ there are also whole careers focused on direct marketing, donor engagement and corporate sponsorship. Go to any fundraising content and there are workshop streams organised around these specialisms too. The same is true for Human Resources; in HR, there are generalists but there are also those focused on payroll, recruiting or benefits. 

In both these contexts, generalist roles tend to be seen more in early career stages when people are gaining a foundational understanding of the full scope of skills, knowledge and experience in their profession. Alternatively, at very senior levels, you’ll see requirements for some generalist knowledge because the team someone is overseeing covers all those functional areas. Yet, at the same time, senior roles bring specialization in leadership, management, strategy, operations etc.

Specialist roles reflect advanced or focused expertise in a specific area – such specialists are often called “subject matter experts.”

By Contrast, Volunteer Engagement

Contrast this with Volunteer Engagement. To be considered a subject matter expert in our field usually means being a generalist who has worked for a number of years as a generalist.
All of which begs the question: Is there a correlation between this generalist focus in our profession and the long-standing challenges Volunteer Engagement professionals face, like gaining the understanding and respect of peers? 

For example, Rob has an A-Level qualification in General Studies, kind of a glorified general knowledge. It is a B grade, the best he achieved at A-Level. But it carries far less status than his A-Levels in maths, economics and physics. Is that the same for us?

It’s easy to connect how a focus on general knowledge hampers the impression of focused, advanced skills and expertise. Certainly, there are benefits to being a generalist, but it’s a valid question to consider whether the fact that there exist only generalist opportunities is an important missing piece in the understanding and advancement of the profession. 

As this article puts it: 

“Generalists aren't experts in any one field, nor do they have a specific skill, so it may be challenging for them to show their worth within a company.”

Does ‘Generalist’ Equal Lack of Depth?

Think again about our fundraising colleagues. The chances are that if you connect with them at all, you have more engagement and affinity with those who work in Community Fundraising because that specialism is focused on getting volunteers to raise funds. But what about direct major donor / big gift colleagues? They regularly work with volunteers, but see it as a specialised role.

Think, too, about your board development colleagues. Chances are they don’t work closely with you, the volunteering generalist, because they see working with trustees and boards as a more specialised skill.

What we are getting at is this: Does our field’s generalist approach reflect a lack of depth in the work of Volunteer Engagement, or a refusal by organizations and us as professionals to invest in and advocate for advanced specializations? If they exist, what might those advanced specializations even be in Volunteer Engagement? Would they mirror those of professions like HR and fundraising? Or could they be an opportunity to explore and define the unique value and contributions that Volunteer Engagement can make not only in organizations but to the wider world?

Conclusion: Back To You, Readers

And so we turn it back to you, readers, with every hope that you will comment below:

  • Do you have a volunteer engagement specialism? If so, what is it? 
  • What specializations can you imagine for the profession?
  • Why do you think there are no specializations in Volunteer Engagement and do you see it as a problem or strength?
To add or view comments

Mon, 10/16/2023

I say all the time, "Titles might be considered 'entry level' but the ins and outs of our work is not" and this rings true based on the many things we accomplish in the field of Volunteer Engagement. Great questions here! 

Tue, 10/24/2023

I'm seeing a real shift in this area with far more colleagues specialising in specific areas of volunteer management. I have colleagues who are specialists in volunteer recruitment, systems, engagement/relations (volunteering "HR" business partner type roles) and volunteering strategy. I think the difference is where you sit in the organisation. If you're in a 'head office' type function the chances are you can specialise but the day to day volunteer managers on the ground are often multitasking, sometimes alongside an operational role elsewhere. However, I don't see that's different for managers managing paid employees who also have to do a day job, manage recruitment, disputes and issues, rotas etc. What I think is really important is that we share the knowledge with our operational volunteer managers so they can upskill, develop their specialist interests and progress their careers.

Tue, 11/28/2023

Thoughtful article pointing out a definite red flag to advancing the status/perception of volunteer management professionals, especially in industries such as healthcare.  

A few areas I envision volunteer professionals specializing in: marketing/recruitment, training, and data/analytics management.

However creating specialties in volunteer management requires buy-in from the organization to increase department staffing, which circles back to developing compelling justification for specializations.