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The Long, Hard Road to Respect

The Long, Hard Road to Respect

At some point in any meeting of volunteer managers there emerges a recurring theme: “They” don’t respect us! It is raised in tones ranging from angry shouts to bemoaned cries, and is often followed by a litany of examples of neglect, misunderstanding and abuse. To whom the “they” refers varies. Sometimes it’s staff or administration, occasionally the general public, even, from time to time, mothers who are puzzled about strange career choices.

The reality is that volunteer managers haven’t always done a good job of earning respect. In previous “Points of View” we’ve talked about ways to gain respect within our own organizations; this current discussion will focus on societal initiatives. These suggestions are probably outside the reach of any single volunteer program manager, but are well within the capacity of a united profession to achieve.

1. Expand youth volunteering to the maximum.

Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, made the rather depressing observation that most new paradigms in science get adopted, not through convincing the old guard, but through outliving them. A new generation can more easily accept new ways of thinking. This is also true about volunteering, and the way to inculcate the next generation is to involve them, preferably as young as possible. As the Jesuits say, “get them before the age of six and you’ve got them forever.”

We know from various surveys that people who volunteer when young tend to volunteer throughout their lives. To maximize this potential, we only need to do two things, both within the ability of volunteer programs: lower the age limits for volunteering to as low as possible; and begin teaching children the practices of effective volunteer management.

In general, program managers don’t really want to deal with young volunteers. At least, that’s what their actions imply. Issues of parental permission and risk management aside, how many creative volunteer roles for teenagers (or younger) have you seen in your community? What kinds of service projects have you asked Girl Scout troops, Sunday School classes, or middle school clubs to do for your agency? Anything they will remember as impressive?

This is exacerbated by the continuing lack of strong connections between school teachers charged with handling service-learning programs and the coordinators of volunteers who are the conduit for the students’ work. Even if we are still not collaborating properly at higher levels, there is no reason that in a local community we can’t meet with one another, share ideas, and learn to understand each other’s roles in the process. We can do this individually and through DOVIAs and other professional networks. Wouldn’t it be nice if every school teacher in town was informed about the work of the area’s volunteer programs – and their managers?

We can also teach kids the practice of volunteer management through reflection sessions on their volunteer experiences and through empowering children to manage their own volunteer efforts. Get young volunteers to talk about not only the work they’ve done at your agency but also about the way they were interviewed, trained, supervised, etc. It’s excellent scholarship to examine the organizational context of one’s work, plus it will make students aware of what it takes to involve volunteers effectively.

Do this and twenty years from now volunteers will rule!

2. Infiltrate professional education.

Very few “professionals” who work with volunteers have ever take a course in volunteer involvement, as educated as they may be in their area of specialty. They take courses in fundraising, financial management and a variety of related skills, but rarely do they study working with volunteers. They thus start their jobs with a cheerful degree of ignorance, which some of them retain for an extended period. You might note Hanlon’s Razor: “never attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity.” 1

We need to take volunteer management education to the schools that educate the paid professionals. And we don’t mean just in social work and nonprofit management, but in all the core disciplines of the voluntary and government sectors – medicine, education, sports, the environment, arts and culture. A little classroom education and a bit of experiential learning (“So, how did you like being treated like a potted plant while volunteering, Mr. Jones?”) might go a long way toward understanding, if not respect.

Infiltration can also be done by offering to present sessions at the conferences (local, regional, national) of these other professions, or by writing articles for the journals these folks read.

3. Place a higher value on volunteer time.

We aren’t talking about a monetary value here. We’re talking about every organization, and every volunteer manager, recognizing that wasting the time of volunteers is unacceptable. Volunteer time should be treated like any other organizational asset – it should be “invested” to create the maximum return. This implies volunteer positions that truly contribute to the needs and goals of the organization, and that fully utilize the talents of the volunteers.

Be on the alert for the following time wasters:

  • Asking more volunteers than you know will be needed to come in on a shift, “in case some of them don’t show up.” Better to overwork a few people (who will then feel really needed), than to send the message that you didn’t expect volunteers to show up or didn’t care if some of them do nothing after having made the effort to come in.
  • Designating all volunteer positions as “aide” or “assistant” or with the label “volunteer” (as in “Volunteer Tutor”). Drawing attention to pay or pecking order status clearly elevates employees over volunteers and de-values the contributions of volunteers before they even begin.
  • Seeing volunteers follow paid staff around asking, “what would you like me to do now?” It’s demeaning to have small tasks parceled out from a mystery to-do list, without any visible thought or preparation on the part of staff for what a particular volunteer is capable of doing in the time allotted. Closely related is the query, “where is a spot for me to sit so can I do this work?”

Here’s McCurley’s Theory of Respect: “The respect accorded volunteers in an organization is directly proportional to the respect accorded the work done by the volunteers.” Staff don’t have any reason to respect volunteers whom they don’t view as essential to the work of the organization – and they have even less reason to respect the volunteer program managers who work with those volunteers.

We’d be much better off if we concentrated less on the quantity of volunteer involvement and more on the quality of the work being done. This notion becomes especially important if you’re a volunteer manager with limited time and resources. You might take note of management authority Peter Drucker’s pithy comment, “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

4. Encourage a volunteer rights movement.

Most volunteers are happy to speak up for their cause, some of them to excess. Few of them, on the other hand, will talk about their own needs and systemic requirements. We need more volunteers to become champions for effective volunteer management, helping the volunteer program manager make the case for support and funding. When the ratio of volunteer manager to volunteers in most organizations exceeds 1 to 20, the system needs all the help it can get. When it hits 1 to 100, as it does in many organizations, the system has lost touch with reality. A few uppity volunteers could start to make a dent in this imbalance.

A quick strike by volunteers would get the requisite attention overnight. The American humorist Erma Bombeck once mused on this idea so winningly in 1976 that her column2 had to be reprinted after a few years by popular request. Yet despite the oft-quoted thought, it remains a satire and not a strategy.

We are not advocating a strike – ironically volunteers would never go for it! – but maybe the following ought to be seriously considered:

  • Creating a volunteer steering committee that really and truly takes ownership of the volunteer program, working with the volunteer program manager to do strategic planning, performance assessment, and resource development. If volunteers are so engaged, then they can also be spokespeople for the needs and plans of the volunteer effort, neatly positioning you as the link between them and the organization – the volunteer program manager is a facilitator, not a “director,” of community input and service.
  • Taking this step to the community level, every Volunteer Center ought to have an equivalent volunteer steering committee –apart from their board – perhaps made up of representatives from the agency groups as well as officers of all-volunteer civic associations. Maybe the annual Volunteer Week event ought to focus on the power of numbers, such as organizing a parade to clog Main Street for an hour with as many volunteers as possible wearing the logos of the organization in which they work (and watch how many volunteers have a chest full of logos).
  • Making sure that interested volunteers attend annual meetings of all organizations and participate. The same goes for meetings of board of directors, if they are open to the public. This would emphasize that volunteers, while serving in the organization, are always private citizens who represent the community.

5. Find out what volunteers really contribute.

One of our pet peeves is academics who insist on doing yet another study of volunteer motivation. Here’s some breaking news, guys – we don’t really need your personal theory about why people volunteer, we’ve already got eighty other useless ones. What we do need, and what academics could actually help us determine, is what exactly volunteers add to service delivery. And we’re not talking about cost-effectiveness, but about the real impact that a volunteer makes. We’ve got some guesses (empathy, persuasive communication, trust), but it would be very nice to have some new data on impact.

Of course, if there were ever any good studies on the real impact that any service organization makes through its paid workers, then we could also ask for some data comparisons. Is there an improvement in service if a volunteer is part of the team? Do volunteers do better at some things than employees? What and why?

6. Get funders to put their money where their mouth is.

Funders talk a good game when it comes to volunteering. They’re all in favor of it. Unfortunately, a long time ago a very shrewd woman in government made an observation that’s quite valuable; “if you want to know what an organization really believes, read its budget, not its press releases.” Relatively few foundations support volunteerism in this country, and almost none support the infrastructure that could truly support more effective volunteering. 3

On the other hand, how many organizations actually ask for money to support volunteers? We need to train foundations to look for appropriate budget considerations that pay for volunteer coordination, supplies and tools, enabling funds, and insurance. But if these are totally absent from a grant proposal, isn’t the first fault at the agency’s doorstep? The line of dismissal, “we don’t have funds to pay for __________ (fill in the blank: that recognition gift, that conference, etc.),” is predicated on today’s budget. Fine. But the fitting response ought to be: “And when will we include this as a line item in an upcoming budget and fund raise to pay for it?”

7. Pass on and grow the tradition.

Paid staff aren’t the only ones who begin working with volunteers in total ignorance – most volunteer program managers start that way as well. There is, however, no excuse for continuing that way, especially when it comes to understanding the history and traditions of our own professional field. We need volunteer managers who read more, write more, think more and care more about this profession. After all, if you don’t care enough about the field you’re in to learn and respect its traditions, why should anyone else?

At the risk of sounding a bit petulant, we have noticed that only a few of you use the capability of the Internet to post responses and initiate dialogue within e-Volunteerism, although we give you the opportunity with every item we publish. If this is a profession, then it should evoke philosophical discussion, examination of our beliefs, furthering of our knowledge.

Respect cannot be requested or demanded. Contrary to the old saying, it isn’t really “earned,” at least not in the sense of “put in your time and effort and rewards will be yours.” Respect is the logical response to that which is incontrovertibly important. Given the numbers of volunteers we mobilize on behalf of the incredible range of needs and causes we represent, the wonder is that so much work needs to be done simply to gain acknowledgement of the obvious.


1If, like Susan, you hadn’t heard of “Hanlon’s Razor” before this, read more about it at!

2Originally appearing in the Chicago Sun Times in 1976, but now readable on the Web in various places, such as at

3We want to acknowledge the notable exception among funders, Jane Leighty Justis. See her remarks on this subject in the very first issue of e-Volunteerism.

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