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It Takes a Village to Raise a Child . . . But not Everyone can be the Blacksmith

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child . . . But not Everyone can be the Blacksmith

“The adage that ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ can be applied to volunteers, as well. It takes the entire organisation to provide a supportive environment for volunteer engagement. So whether you delegate primary accountability for volunteer management to an existing staff member or hire a new full- or part-time employee for this role, also assign specific responsibilities for supporting volunteers to other agency staff. This makes clear that working alongside volunteers will be part of everyone’s job—as is working alongside paid colleagues—because volunteers are now part of the team delivering the organisation’s services.”  – Susan J. Ellis


Those words were written in 1988 when the late Susan J. Ellis, the co-founder of e-Volunteerism and a leading volunteer management expert and consultant, published the first edition of her book, From The Top Down. They still remain true more than 30 years later. If we acknowledge that volunteer engagement is an outcome, it then follows that in any organisation that engages volunteers, everyone has a responsibility for supporting volunteers. Yet everyone’s role and responsibilities are not the same. For some who aren’t working directly with a volunteer, it’s a general responsibility (as you would welcome and work with any colleague in your organisation by remembering their name, being helpful, and saying thank you, etc.). For others, it’s a more specific responsibility because they are the direct staff partner to a volunteer which involves more direct management, providing on-the-job coaching, etc. Neither of these roles, however, are the same as being the leader of volunteers.

Returning to Susan’s point, it may have taken everyone in the village to raise a child, but it didn’t mean everyone had the same job – and we forget that to our own detriment. While it’s important to recognize that everyone plays a role, it’s a fallacy to think everyone in the village brings the same skills or has the same focus. Imagine if the village teacher is away – does the blacksmith step in to teach? Unlikely. Both roles contribute to a well-functioning whole, but it’s understood they do not contribute in the same way.

Reading Between the Lines: What We Really Mean

We sometimes hear volunteer engagement professionals talking about training their colleagues to have volunteer engagement skills, as if we are expecting them to be leaders of volunteers as well as social workers, fundraisers, nurses, and the like. What we really mean is that we want to teach them to be good partners to volunteers so they can play their role in the ‘village’, stewarding and supporting the valuable resources volunteers bring to our mission.

Another old chestnut is reading the bios of new colleagues, often shared when they join the organisation, that boast “volunteer engagement experience” when what they really mean is that they ran programs that were delivered by volunteers. Program management is not Volunteer Engagement, or as Erin likes to quip:

“Brushing your teeth does not make you a dentist!”

This may sound like a small, semantic distinction but we think it’s really important. Consider:  if we think we can give people the skills needed to be competent and professional volunteer managers in a two-hour workshop, what does that say about the talent required to do our jobs? Of course, anyone can successfully work with and support volunteers if they have a bit of knowledge and skill, but that isn’t the same as being a volunteer engagement professional. As Rob puts it:

“To suggest that in less than a day anyone can learn to be as knowledgeable about volunteer engagement as I have become over 25 years of hard work, dedication, and commitment is, frankly, insulting.”

Let’s Be Realistic

Trying to make everyone a volunteer manager isn’t just unrealistic; it’s counter-productive to delivering a good volunteer experience. Additionally, it exposes a huge weakness within the profession: that we are unable to articulate the unique and critical value our role adds. It implies that we can and should train colleagues to have the same set of skills and knowledge as we do, belying the core competencies, goals and purpose of our roles as leaders of volunteers.

So what really makes someone a skilled and effective volunteer engagement professional?

  • Is it the ability to have difficult conversations with people?
  • Is it the ability to follow policies and procedures?
  • It is the ability to write a role description?
  • Is it the ability to have a supportive discussion with someone you manage?

Check the workshops at any Volunteer Engagement conference and these are common topics you’ll see being covered. But they don’t define good volunteer engagement as distinct from any other management discipline. Someone who can do these things isn’t automatically competent as a volunteer engagement professional.

We’ve been asking the question – “What really makes someone a skilled and competent volunteer engagement professional?” – for a few years now, and we haven’t yet found anyone sharing an acceptable and definitive answer.

That should worry us all.  If we can’t articulate to ourselves what makes us competent and distinct from other forms of management, then how can we ever hope to effect the change so many of us feel is needed around our role in and contribution to our organisations and their missions?

Here’s What We Think

We’ve put our heads together and now we’d like to suggest what makes us distinctive and competent. We’d not only invite you to read this but to help shape it further as well. Forget working groups, committees, and the like. We’re building this definition together in real time! Here goes:

Volunteer Engagement professionals add value to organisations by:

  • Acting as a bridge between the organisational mission and the talents people are willing to share, strategically identifying and negotiating the best fit for both parties whilst maximizing impact.
  • Functioning as a subject matter expert in the best practices of involving volunteers. This includes understanding the unique needs and realities of a diverse population of often short-term workers who both share, yet differ significantly, in key aspects, from paid employees. It also includes understanding the broader landscape of volunteerism trends and connecting those to the needs of the organisation in order to produce results.
  • Operating as an internal coach and steward to volunteers and paid employees alike, supporting healthy partnerships that are focused on the achievement of core organisational priorities and mission.
  • Facilitating the overarching experience of volunteers (though not necessarily being involved in the minutia of it) so as to act as a key leader of reputational management and deliver critical organisational insights into what is often an organisation’s largest portion of human resources.

You’ll notice the points above reflect a few core skills similar to other professions: leadership, communication, collaboration, and relationship management. What underpins these and makes them unique to leaders of volunteers is the strategic yet organisation-wide focus, vision, and ability to create mutually beneficial partnerships within an incredibly complex landscape of competing demands, differences of perspectives, and distractions.

But here’s what being a Volunteer Engagement professional doesn’t mean:

  • That everything related to volunteers has to go through you or be done by you!;
  • That you are the sole, or even key, relationship holder to volunteers; and 
  • That you can rest on the laurels of your experience. Volunteers and volunteerism is changing all the time because people and society are changing all the time.

What would you add, subtract, or edit to help us jointly build an encompassing and accurate understanding of who and what leaders of volunteers are and define what role we play in the village?

Conclusion and a Challenge

In this Points of View, we’ve taken a seemingly innocuous point – our desire to train colleagues to work well with volunteers – and extrapolated from this some bigger issues that this approach may reveal about our profession. We hope that we have been provocative and that we got you thinking.

But it’s important that you go beyond thinking about what we’ve said. You have an opinion about this topic. You may agree. You may disagree. You may have a completely different perspective.

Great! We want to hear it.

So here’s a challenge: Please use the opportunities that online publishing platforms like e-Volunteerism provide and add your own distinct point of view to this article. Share your thoughts via the Comments section below. You’ll help build not only a conversation but also perform your role as a member of the village.



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