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Where Are the Men?

Where Are the Men?

Susan: The question of finding "men" to be volunteers and also to be volunteer program managers surfaces quite regularly, frequently accompanied by deep sighs from female colleagues. When a live male candidate actually appears, the sighs change to heavy panting.

As you can tell already by the bit of computer/gender humor we shared at the top and the last sentence, it's easy for Steve and me to be tongue-in-cheek about this subject. And, to mention the obvious: we have naturally different perspectives on the topic. But gender is important in volunteerism, as in all aspects of life. So, let's see what's really going on.

Steve: At least as much as two people looking at something from totally different perspectives can, at any rate.

We had already decided to focus this issue's "Points of View" on gender in volunteerism when our colleague, Linda Graff, sent along this bit of e-mail humor.

A college English teacher was explaining to his students the concept of gender association in the English language. He noted how hurricanes at one time were given only female names, and how ships and planes were usually referred to as "she." One of the students raised her hand and asked, "What gender is a computer?"

The teacher wasn't certain. So he divided the class into two groups: males in one, females in the other, and asked them to decide if a computer should be masculine or feminine. Both groups were asked to give four reasons for their recommendations.

The group of women concluded that computers should be referred to as masculine because:

  1. In order to get their attention, you have to turn them on.
  2. They have a lot of data but are still clueless.
  3. They are supposed to help you solve your problems, but half the time, they ARE the problem.
  4. As soon as you commit to one, you realize that, if you had waited a little longer, you could have had a better model.

The men, on the other hand, decided that computers should definitely be referred to as feminine because:

  1. No one but their creator understands their internal logic
  2. The native language they use to communicate with other computers is incomprehensible to everyone else.
  3. Even your smallest mistakes are stored in long-term memory for later retrieval.
  4. As soon as you make a commitment to one, you find yourself spending half your paycheck on accessories for it.

Chuckling aside, we can well ask: "What gender is a volunteer?" Or…"What gender is a volunteer program manager." And thereby hangs a discussion.

Where Are the Men?

Susan: The question of finding "men" to be volunteers and also to be volunteer program managers surfaces quite regularly, frequently accompanied by deep sighs from female colleagues. When a live male candidate actually appears, the sighs change to heavy panting.

As you can tell already by the bit of computer/gender humor we shared at the top and the last sentence, it's easy for Steve and me to be tongue-in-cheek about this subject. And, to mention the obvious: we have naturally different perspectives on the topic. But gender is important in volunteerism, as in all aspects of life. So, let's see what's really going on.

Steve: At least as much as two people looking at something from totally different perspectives can, at any rate.

Susan: I have probably repeated the following sentence I coined over two decades ago hundreds of times and it is undoubtedly the line the press most often quotes in print after an interview:

Men have always volunteered; they just call themselves "coaches," "trustees," and "firemen."

Gift for Our Readers:
Men Have Always Volunteered Mini-Poster
(for your bulletin board!)

The line always gets a laugh, especially from any men in the audience. The laughter comes from recognition of the truth. Men do not generally relate to the WORD "volunteer," even though they have always engaged in the practice.

Steve: Ah, but do you realize what they're laughing about? At the risk of being hounded for the rest of my life, I could just quote from a noted authority on volunteer management, who once said: "The word 'volunteer' is a pay grade, not a job title." Accordingly, the real significance of the saying Susan quotes above is that men have always had a better understanding of volunteer management than women -- we would never allow ourselves to be called "just a volunteer."

Susan: We would never have had any youth sports programs were it not for the uncountable fathers and young male athletes determined to create teams and leagues.

Steve: But is this a gender-based problem related to volunteering? The Sport Council of the UK did a survey in 1996 which discovered that while male volunteers in sports clubs outnumbered females (63 percent to 37 percent), these percentages simply reflected the gender balance of those participating in the sports involved. Those in the US will have noticed the rapidly changing gender balance in sports in the US brought about by girl's soccer. And I believe most of the women volunteering to help in that are also called "coach," when they're not being referred to as "Mom."

Susan: Similarly, we would hardly have been able to keep the country from burning down around our ears were it not for volunteer firefighters -- most of them men who, as little boys, knew that they wanted to be firemen when they grew up.

And, finally, while the women did most of the front-line work, and frequently ran fundraising events, it was traditionally the men who served on boards of directors, particularly as trustees of major institutions such as hospitals and universities.

Steve: Well, you got me on that one. I vaguely remember a really depressing study that quantified this a few years ago, but I'm afraid to look it up. Most amazingly, this remains true even when the biggest gender disparity is not between male and female volunteers, but between male and female staff members in smaller charity organizations.

Susan: Over the years, I've conducted workshops on five continents and wherever I am, I ask whether any stereotypes are attached to the native word for volunteer. In every case -- no exceptions so far -- the answer has always been "it's seen as women's work." So there is something universal going on here.

Steve: Oddly enough, male trainers don't get this reaction, mostly because they don't have this conversation much, especially given that much of their audience is female. This factoid was based on a quick survey of several (well, two) of the more traveled trainers in volunteer management: Rick Lynch and myself. We tend to avoid gender discussions for fear of being, so to speak, lynched.

Susan: The feminization of the word "volunteer" is hard to explain, especially since the word has a long history in the military. "Volunteer militia" fought the American Revolution and, even today, US military recruitment refers to the "All-Volunteer Army." Of course, this means the service is voluntARY -- non-draft -- rather than unpaid. Similarly, in times of natural disaster, it is an international badge of honor to join the ranks of the "volunteers" doing manual labor, especially if it has an air of danger to it, like shoring up dikes in the face of a flood or seeking survivors amidst the rubble after an earthquake.

Steve: And, at the risk of contradicting what I said above, male firefighters have always insisted on using the word "volunteer," almost like a badge of honor. It would be interesting if some footloose academic did a study of male attitudes toward the word "volunteer" and built in a small test group of volunteer firefighters to see what they think. And threw in a few coaches as well.

Susan: But most of the time, men don't relate to "being a volunteer." They picture themselves doing:

  • {pro bono publico} work (Latin, meaning "for the public good"); or
  • providing {donated professional services}; or
  • practicing {client development} through community service; or
  • simply doing what any {good father} does.

All-volunteer groups that began as all-male "clubs" (Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.) acknowledge the unpaid nature of their organizations but think about their recruitment efforts as "membership development." The identity a member feels is not necessarily as a "volunteer," but as a "Rotarian."

Steve: Sure, but isn't this simply a matter of "branding?" The job of every Rotarian is to convince more people to become Rotarians, not to volunteer someplace else. And if you visit the Rotary Website,, you can download some of their new recruitment posters. Note the tagline under Rotary International: "a global network of community volunteers." Of course, this might have been amended a little since Rotary started admitting females.…

Susan: Historically, women demonstrated the earning power of their husbands by not working for pay outside the home (while they slaved away inside the home). So, while hubby earned money, wifey "volunteered" -- the implication being that she didn't "need" the money. Over time, this may have tainted volunteering as being what only women did.

Steve: "Wifey?" Uh, Susan.…

Susan: Again historically, if one looks at the leadership of most nonprofit organizations a century ago, it's hard to find many female decision-makers. Of course, most women had no legal standing apart from their husbands, and so "trusteeship" was assigned to those who could legally exercise it. For example, we may remember Clara Barton for her work at the Red Cross, but her board of directors was totally male.

Steve: I've always wondered how it was that many of the major volunteer organizations were founded by women, but then power devolved to males. Was it turned over? Stolen? Foisted upon because no one wanted to be in charge? At a rough guess, one might find that the organizations were started and run by women when they were at the local level and remained relatively small, and that as they grew and became national, the amount of male involvement increased.

The Gender of Our Profession

Susan: Vocabulary plays a part in whether or not men take positions of leadership over "volunteers" or "firemen." Why seek the title of "director of volunteers" when you can be:

  • Fire Chief?
  • Head Coach?
  • Director of Corporate Social Responsibility?
  • Chapter President?

Without a doubt, the majority of people who identify with the job title of "director of volunteer services" (or any of the numerous variations on this theme) are women. Why? Here are a few possible reasons (most with origins in "tradition"):

First, since it was assumed that "volunteers" would predominantly be women, it seemed natural to have their leader be female, too.

Steve: …And to stay that way. Volunteer managers tend to create volunteer programs in their own image, which tends to result in focusing on recruiting more female volunteers than males. One of the conceptual responsibilities in operating a volunteer program is deciding what it "ought" to be and look like. We all have a tendency to see ourselves somewhere in that notion and then to work hard to make it true. Part of the ease of this in managing volunteer programs comes during the "gut reaction" part of the volunteer interview. We tend to be more comfortable with those who are like us, and thus we tend to make them feel more comfortable. So, managers tend to "select" those who are like themselves and these individuals tend to accept that selection because they feel comfortable as well. Thus cloning occurs.

Susan: Secondly, men were deemed more competent to deal with money and hence became "directors of development," while the forte of female "directors of volunteers" was dealing with people, which may have provided help but didn't produce checks.

Steve: Which is just dumb. Note, for example, Andreoni, Brown and Rischall's "Charitable Giving by Married Couples: Who Decides and Why Does It Matter?" which found that among married couples, 53 percent reported that decisions about charitable giving were made jointly, 19 percent say the husband was most involved, and 28 percent said the wife is the primary decision-maker. Or "Gender Differences in Giving in Volunteering" by NSGVP Online, which notes that women are more likely to make a donation in memoriam (27 percent vs. 20 percent), through door-to-door canvassing (20 percent vs. 19 percent) and through a mail request (31 percent vs. 27 percent). We won't even mention the interesting statistics about females outliving males and the impact this is about to have on bequests to charities during the next ten years.

Susan: Third, the dubious logic of separating money-raising from people-raising led to a hierarchy of salaries, too. So, as the job of volunteer program manager was (is) usually poorly paid, it tended to attract women whose salary expectations started lower anyway.

Steve: Part of which undoubtedly resulted from the fact that those hired were drawn from housewives who were volunteering, and, as a result, were less interested in the career or monetary aspects of the position.

Fourth, volunteers are often stereotyped as seniors or teens, or people with few skills and lots of demands on a supervisor. Surely women are better at dealing with these "types" than men are?

Steve: Well, actually they probably are. Studies show that women tend to have a management style which is better able to cope with diverse populations. Even that exceedingly diverse groups, males...

Susan: Fifth, women are perpetuators of the system as well as victims of it. As soon as a man enters a "caring" setting such as human services or health care, there is such delight at his presence that he is rapidly promoted upward. Similarly, when a male colleague joins a DOVIA or other professional organization, he finds himself immediately tapped onto committees and rapidly nominated to the presidency.

Steve: A similar phenomenon happens among groups of volunteers. The number of males in hospital auxiliaries has increased remarkably over the past few years (which is easier than it seems, given the abysmal gender split among those groups). It's amazing how many of these males have ended up being "treasurer."

Susan: Of course, all this reverses itself once we move to national volunteerism organizations. Here, despite the vast numbers of women who run volunteer centers and agency volunteer programs, we find men in most top positions. Whether Points of Light, the Corporation for National Service, America's Promise, or even local United Ways, men are in charge. This is also true for academic centers of philanthropy and scholarly associations. Yes, there are some women, but the number of men is disproportionate to their representation on the front lines.

Steve: Having worked in some of these places, I'm willing to attribute the difference to women simply being more rational than men. You have to be crazy to take those jobs. And if you aren't, they'll train you.

Susan: This follows gender patterns in other professions. Women are teachers, men are principals and superintendents. Women make up the majority of hospital personnel, men are the majority of hospital administrators. So we have to be careful not to blame volunteerism for what is, after all, a social condition -- worldwide.


Finding Male Volunteers

Susan: Don't assume you can't recruit men. If you do, self-fulfilling prophecy will rear its ugly head. One you doubt your ability to find male volunteers, you'll subtly aim your message at women and go to places where you are more likely to find women. Check out the hidden messages of:

  • exactly what we ask volunteers to do: Would men be attracted to do these things?
  • the titles we give to volunteer positions: Are they gender neutral? Do they imply always being an assistant?
  • the times at which we schedule orientation sessions and other meetings: Do we imply availability during the weekday?
  • the colors and images we use: Do volunteer materials come mainly in pink? Show flowers or bunny rabbits on them? Do we show male volunteers in our photographs in brochures or online?
  • the cuisine of recognition events: Who are "luncheons" with salads and quiche really for?

Do we say we want to diversify our volunteer corps while our actions demonstrate the opposite?

Steve: An example of this, from the male point of view. It's amazing how many volunteer recognition events feature flowers. Now it's not that males don't like flowers, but occasionally a different, less gender-connected item might be nice.…

Susan: Recruiting men requires the same target marketing strategies as recruiting any other type of "new" volunteer:

  1. Design work that might appeal to men. Correct any elements of your organization that are not gender neutral.
  2. Determine where you can find men with those interests or qualifications.>
  3. Develop recruitment materials that use vocabulary and images to communicate to men.
  4. GO OUT and ASK men to become volunteers!

Steve: When it comes to creating male images of volunteering, nothing compares to the posters created by the Volunteer Bureau of Kensington and Chelsea. They can best be described as the "hunks and blokes" campaign.

Susan: You might start with a group project in collaboration with an existing men's organization -- from fraternities to labor unions to men's clubs in faith communities. Add a "body building" image to the labor necessary! Or recruit divorced fathers to team up with their children on days they have custody. This may not only recruit men -- but a whole different type of woman, too!

Steve: The easiest place to find a whole lot of ideas about recruiting male volunteers is Stephanie Blackman's manual "Recruiting Male Volunteers: A Guide Based on Exploratory Research," which is available at

Finding Our Male Colleagues

Susan: If we are concerned about finding male volunteerism colleagues, then we have to first SEE them. I've said before that most DOVIAs and other associations do not attract men because they don't invite them. And they don't invite them because they don't go beyond their traditional circle of human service and cultural arts organizations. Try two things:

One idea is to broaden the vocabulary of our meeting and conference invitations so that we say "working with volunteers, citizen participation, donated professional services, and anyone doing community service without financial profit."

Steve: In 25 years of attending meetings and trainings of local groups of volunteer administrators, I've only seen one in which attendees included representatives of volunteer firefighters. It was in Spokane, WA, and it brought an interesting perspective to the meeting. Since it was a risk-management workshop, it was a very, very interesting perspective.

Susan: The other idea is to send letters or telephone to places such as:

  • Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other conservation groups
  • Police departments (for who runs Town Watch and any policy auxiliary program)
  • National Guard
  • Any youth sports league
  • Professional societies with public affairs committees
  • Alumni officers
  • Clergy of any denomination
  • Prisons (for the staff, not the residents!)

I guarantee we'll increase our chances of finding men who coordinate community involvement programs.

Steve: One theory, maybe with a bit of truth. A lot of the conversation at DOVIA meetings has to do with "professional" issues around salary, respect, etc. These aren't particularly relevant to many of the male, part-time volunteer managers, especially those who don't have that as part of their title but just include it as part of their work. They aren't focused on being "volunteer managers," as much on being managers who happen to have volunteers involved in their programs. This makes most DOVIA meetings a bit less relevant.

Moving Women Into Higher Positions

Susan: If we want to gain leadership roles for women in our profession, we need to:

  • Become interested in raising money as well as people (stop saying: "I just don't like to deal with money.") for our organizations.
  • Ask for better wages and be able to defend why.
  • Recognize that promotion to executive roles does not have to mean "leaving" volunteer administration -- you take it with you.
  • Stop raising up token males, giving them officer nominations and visibility before they earn them.
  • Challenge national organizations and academic centers that do not seem to care about gender representation.

I'm not trying to "blame the victim" here, but we've gotten to where we are because we accepted the status quo.

Steve: I think you're absolutely right on this point. Women now have the opportunity to shape volunteer management systems far more than ever before. How they choose to do so will determine whether the system of the next 50 years will become inclusionary and diverse or will remain the "domain" of females. The simple reality is that there is much greater diversity among volunteers than there is among Volunteer Program Mangers, so we do not truly reflect the rich variety of perspectives that volunteers bring to their efforts. This is not a good thing, either for the profession or for volunteering.

To add or view comments

Wed, 04/18/2001
Interesting debate regarding male volunteers. There are areas of volunteerism where the majority of volunteers are male and we struggle to attract female role models. Any of us who've managed science center volunteer programs, usually have a majority of men. Our challenge is to find younger (30-40 something) female volunteers with a science related profession that our female students can identify with. I think the same holds true for other technology based museums or centers that utilize volunteers.