Skip to main content

Should Volunteer Administration Be a "Profession"?

Should Volunteer Administration Be a "Profession"?

Yes...Susan Ellis

Let's start by discarding the issue of pay as irrelevant. While it is true that the practice of any profession most often allows members to earn a living (and usually, but not always, a better wage than someone outside of a profession), being on the payroll is not, in itself, a criterion for recognition as a profession. It is possible to work in the field of volunteer administration both as a paid employee and as a volunteer. This scenario is not different from that of doctors or architects who choose to volunteer their services to causes that matter to them. The expertise of those in the medical and design fields are not questioned when no paycheck is evident.

One salient problem-with which Ivan Scheier deals at length in his --is simply that volunteerism practitioners are extremely difficult to identify. First, we have wildly differing job titles and, second, many of us have titles that don't even hint at our responsibility for volunteer involvement. Generally, volunteerism is treated as an "add on," secondary to our primary work, whatever that may be. Without some unifying "label," we cannot hope to find each other, let alone gain recognition from others. We need to follow the example of teachers, social workers, lawyers, and other professionals all of whom have agreed-upon generic names for their work, even if their setting-specific title is something else. For example, a social worker is still a social worker even though he or she might be called a "foster care specialist" in a child welfare agency. Similarly a lawyer remains a lawyer even though his or her title might be "director of advocacy." Professions give their members an identity that allows them to find one another and allows others to find them.

So, why should volunteer administration want or need to be a profession? Let's examine some of the proposed motivations.

Unique Identity
Apart from the problem of our many different titles, volunteer program management is too often submerged under other professions and fields. These professions and fields may be tangential to volunteer management but are not necessarily congruent. My pet peeve is to have volunteer administration categorized under "social services." To this day I bristle when I see By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers catalogued by the Library of Congress under "Social Work-U.S.-History of..." Grrrr.

Volunteerism practitioners are broad enough in scope to deserve our own category. Yes, we have strong ties to human resource management, community organizing, nonprofit organizational development, public administration, resource development, etc., etc. We are a part of all these professional fields, but exceed the parameters of every one of them.

We should be a profession because we offer an approach to organizing our civilization that unashamedly--and uniquely--views human beings as willing to help one another for the collective good for reasons other than economic gain. In a world that seems to value money above all else, the ability of volunteer administration to separate financial profit from productivity and accomplishment is quite simply astonishing. In my opinion, this focus on productivity without monetary incentive is so distinct from other disciplines that it alone justifies our categorization as a profession.

Transferability
Professions train people in knowledge and skills that can be used in a wide variety of ways. In other words, they produce people who are able to reason and to apply the skills they have learned to a theoretical framework in any setting. Someone from the medical profession, for example, can work in a hospital, on a ski slope, or on a cruise ship. Medicine, rather than the identity or location of the patient, is the common denominator. Similarly, volunteer program management can be transferred from setting to setting.

Perhaps the most detrimental issue facing us as we attempt to define our profession is the sense that this is a dead-end "job." Career mobility takes us up and out of the volunteer field. But this does not have to be the case if we learn to think of ourselves as unique professionals. I have often said, "you can take a person out of volunteerism, but you can't take volunteerism out of the person." Once someone understands--truly and deeply--the value of effective volunteer involvement, it becomes integral to one's world-view. This enables a person to be effective in mobilizing volunteers whether in a prison or an orchestra, and whether under the title of "director of volunteers," "director of human resources," or even "executive director." Again, this is a fundamental approach to organizing people.

Transmission of Knowledge
Our wish to gain recognition for the complexity of our specialized work goes beyond superficial things like wanting a bigger salary. It is clear to those of us doing the work that success comes from learning both the science and the "craft" of volunteer leadership. Our body of knowledge has been accumulating at an ever-increasing pace. One of the hallmarks of a profession is the ability to transmit such knowledge to new practitioners.

If we continue the tradition of on-the-job training, with agencies hiring inexperienced people to run volunteer programs, we cannot move forward. Even worse, volunteers cannot move forward. We waste an extraordinary amount of time and energy bringing newcomers "up to speed" on the basics. Just spend a month or so on the CyberVPM listserv and watch the same questions surface over and over. Why do we eternally reinvent the wheel?

Once we think of ourselves as a profession, many things about the transmission of information and experience become self-evident. For example:

  • The need to learn at least the basics before attempting to manage a volunteer program. Almost everyone would agree-employers included--that there are such things as qualifications and credentials in this field. (Compare the outcry of the teaching profession to the attempt to hire people whose knowledge of the subject matter does not include experience with classroom education.)

  • The need to spend some of our time and (gasp!) money on initial and continuing education, whether for coursework, other credentialing, conference registration and travel, and books and subscriptions. I'm talking about our own time and money here, not waiting for someone else to buy us a career.

  • The validity of associating with colleagues who share our vested interest in adding to the knowledge of the field, representing the profession to others, and providing methods of advancement. "How can I be left out of the action?" must replace "What do I get for my dues?" thinking.

Bottom Line
So, yes, we should be a profession. Do I like the name "volunteer administration?" Absolutely not. Do I want to require specific academic degrees for entry to the profession? No way. Are there other problems to overcome? Of course. But if we cannot agree that something unifies us into a coherent whole, I believe we are in grave danger of derailing volunteer efforts with an unending parade of untrained, under-valued, marginal leaders. If we are to stop "using" volunteers as a career stepping stone, we must acknowledge that being a leader of volunteers is a calling and an identity.

No...Steve McCurley

The first AVA business meeting I ever attended (roughly 25 years ago) featured a rousing argument over whether membership in AVA should be restricted to "paid" managers of volunteers. Those speaking in favor of this proposition cited the need to demonstrate the "professional" nature of the field, something that would lead to increased respect and greater pay.

I was so baffled that it took five years of coaxing to get me to go back to my second meeting.

Since that time I've heard the need for "professional" status raised again and again. Generally, this cry is raised by managers of volunteers who feel under-respected within their organizations. Their feelings of inferiority are reinforced by their meager salaries. Their frustrated call for justice gives way to the notion that certificates on the wall, letters after our names, uniforms with medals, and titles of respect would make all of our problems disappear. We could be honored members of a "profession" and both our colleagues and our mothers would finally understand that we deserve their respect. We could even tell strangers at a party what we really do for a living.

I have two thoughts about this.

The first is that life and respect simply don't work that way. A number of years ago I formulated what I modestly call "McCurley's Law of Respect." It goes like this:

The respect accorded a manager of volunteers within an organization is directly proportional to the respect accorded the work done by the volunteers within that organization.

This theory simply means that in organizations where volunteers are perceived as making an important contribution to the organization's mission, the position of manager of volunteers is also viewed as more important, as is the person who holds that position. Certificates, letters, uniforms and titles are irrelevant. Conversely, in an organization where volunteers are taken for granted you can safely bet that the manager of volunteers will be as well.

If you really want respect you have to earn it in the trenches, not in the ivory towers. To earn this respect a manager of volunteers needs to develop more of what Rick Lynch refers to as "high impact" volunteer positions; ones that really make a difference to the mission of the organization and that involve volunteers in creative, interesting, and significant work.

Real respect doesn't come from who you are; it comes from what you do. Just wearing the uniform doesn't make you a hero.

My second thought is more troublesome.

I don't like "professionalism." I think "professions" tend toward being exclusionary, self-protective, overly serious, and unimaginative. Professions build walls -- the anointed few on the inside and the rest of the world on the outside. Professions also build "rules" -- principles that dictate the "right" way of doing things. They do this so that people can demonstrate, by reciting the rules, that they have earned the title, the letters and the certificate on the wall. You have to learn the secret handshake and pass the test.

But that isn't what involving volunteers is all about.

In the first place, we always need to remember that the vast numbers of those who actively coordinate volunteers will never, ever fit into the box of "professional." They are volunteers coordinating other volunteers; they are those who don't do this work for a living but provide it in their spare time; they are those who will do the work for a while only to move into some other form of endeavor.

No one really knows, but you could make a good guess that the number of full-time managers of volunteers hasn't increased in the last twenty years. In fact, the number may even have declined, especially if you factor in the number of Directors of Volunteer Services in hospitals who now coordinate volunteers at the same time that they attend to ten other responsibilities.

"Professional," paid managers of volunteers are the very small tip of a very large iceberg. It's not that they're unimportant, but they are certainly outnumbered.

In the second place, we need to contemplate what the splendor of "amateurism" has brought to volunteerism. Volunteer involvement is currently the most creative area of management. Consider the recent innovations alone: virtual volunteering, family volunteering, volunteer vacations, volunteers from the workplace, and service learning. The list goes on and on, identifying new strategies that were both unthinkable and un-thought-of twenty years ago.

These innovations did not arise because of the "professionals." They were created by people new to the field, who not only didn't know the rules, but didn't even suspect that there were any rules. When you don't know what the right answer is supposed to be you can get darned creative making up your own answer.

A lot of these creative people blazed right through volunteer administration and moved quickly on to something else. They deserve every bit of success they can find in that new field. And, as Winnie Brown points out, an awful lot of them became executive directors of nonprofit agencies, thereby simply transferring their work with volunteers to a different arena.

In a sense, volunteer management has benefited from the part-time contributions of these "non-professionals," just as organizations can benefit from the part-time contributions of volunteers.

Working with volunteers is a skill that everyone ought to have, much like the skill of knowing how to operate a computer. But thinking that anyone who works with volunteers should become a "professional" is simply misguided.

What we don't need in volunteering are rules and restrictions that tell us who can belong, who can play the game and how things must be done. Involving volunteers isn't about how things get done; it's about what gets accomplished.

The consummate French diplomat, Charles-Maurice Perigord de Talleyrand, once said: "War is much too serious a thing to be left to the generals."

So is volunteer administration.

To add or view comments