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Earning Power and Respect for Volunteer Services: A Dozen Action Steps

Earning Power and Respect for Volunteer Services: A Dozen Action Steps


The Internal Battle

by Steve McCurley

Niccolo Machiavelli is famous for writing a book entitled The Prince, which is about gaining and exercising Power. "Power" is something that you don't hear discussed much among volunteer managers, since most of them don't have it. In fact, the closest the typical volunteer manager gets to studying "Power" is if they encounter the works of David McClelland and learn about "affiliators," "achievers," and the "power-oriented," and then make use of that knowledge in interviewing and matching volunteers to positions.

Most volunteer managers are "affiliators," which makes them very good at developing relationships with volunteers. It also, unfortunately, makes them less likely to work to develop their own sources of power within their organization. As a result, in most organizations, volunteer programs are on the bottom of the hierarchy and volunteer program managers have a difficult time getting their opinions listened to and their program respected.

"Power" is not, however, a concept that any program manager can afford to ignore. In times of competing resources, all organizational programs need to demonstrate their value - though some of the debate over value isn't conducted with total objectivity.

We aren't inclined to try to turn most volunteer managers into Machiavellian personalities, so what we'd like to offer instead are some ways a volunteer program can acquire power in an organization without manipulating others.

1.  Connect volunteer positions directly to the agency mission.

The volunteer program will be respected to the extent that staff and leaders can directly see how volunteers contribute to the accomplishment of the agency mission. The more that volunteers are performing work that is seen to be integral to what the organization is attempting to accomplish, the more the volunteer program is likely to be seen as significant to the success of the organization. This is a particularly good principle to remember when you are a volunteer program manager with limited time to devote to management - spend it on volunteers who really make a difference.

2. Remember: "No guts, no glory."

For good or bad, we tend to value those who are willing to take risks and are willing to try things which push the envelope. Volunteer programs are perfectly designed to take advantage of this, through the involvement of out-of-the-ordinary populations or the creation of unusual, different, or innovative volunteer positions. These types of endeavors, even when they fail, tend to result in stories that others tell with some envy and, when they succeed, turn into legends. Aim high and recruit the best and brightest volunteers with the important spheres of influence they bring with them. Then make sure the agency knows who the volunteers are by reporting on the demographic profile of the volunteer corps at least annually.

3. Fight to get equal treatment for paid staff and volunteers.

When volunteers become "second class citizens" in an organization this almost always means they are treated with less respect than paid staff. This is usually not done as an official agency policy, but shows itself in little ways - different treatment, different rules. If you look around you can find a lot of examples. Who's on the circulation list for things like invitations to community events? Can volunteers as well as paid staff request that the organization pay for training or books? In one agency, all employees were issued ceramic coffee mugs, while volunteers got to use paper cups. The "disposable" ones.…

4. Reward paid staff who work with volunteers.

One of the clearest ways of classifying the respect given to volunteers in an organization is to see how employees who work with volunteers are regarded. In many agencies - including most government ones - staff who work with volunteers don't receive any supervisory training or credit, giving the clear impression that, in the perspective of the agency, volunteers don't even rate as "human beings." Fight to get management of volunteers included in the position requirements of all staff; fight to get supervisory credit for staff who successfully manage volunteers; and fight to get volunteers involved in evaluating the staff who supervise them. How? Try a patient-but-unending series of memos, meetings with administrators, drafting possible policy statements, and adding employee recognition to your volunteer recognition activities.

5. Remind paid staff that they are volunteers, too.

One additional duty worth taking up as a volunteer program manager is helping employees in their personal volunteer work. This can range from coordinating the organization's own volunteer projects outside the agency (like participation in a Martin Luther King Day of Service), providing staff information about interesting volunteer opportunities suitable for them or their families (suggesting summer projects for teenage sons and daughters will win friends), or passing on information that might help staff in their own volunteer work. The more we remind paid staff of their own "volunteer-ness," the harder it is for them to see the organization's volunteers as less qualified than they are.

6. Put volunteers in positions of management authority.

One way to get power is to give it away. A volunteer manager can do this by visibly delegating significant tasks to volunteers. Training of new volunteers is one such task, especially when the volunteer is matched with a respected staff person. Appointing a volunteer as a representative to report to the board or to serve on an agency committee of any sort is another way to accomplish this.

The suggestions above are aimed more at earning power than conniving it. If you haven't ever read Machiavelli you might ponder one interesting observation that he made late in The Prince:

"God is not willing to do everything, and thus take away that share of glory which is rightfully ours."

Read Susan's Point of View

The External Battle

by Susan J. Ellis

There are two reasons to take the search for power outside your agency's walls:

  • It allows you to join forces with colleagues and collective action always carries more clout.
  • If you gain the respect of others, your own organization is forced to view you differently, too.

Again, as a profession, we tend to resist making waves. The trouble is that often we won't even get into the water! There are as many consequences to doing nothing as to doing something. The question is which consequences are more painful?

1. Use professional networks to voice opinions.

One important role of a professional association is to provide "protection" to individuals who speak on behalf of the all the members. Reaction directed at an opinion offered by the Hometown Association of Directors of Volunteer Services accrues to the entire group, not to the officer who voices it. So take risks. About what? Here are some ideas:

  • Write a paper on the value of a full-time volunteer services coordinator. Send it to any agency in town who does not have such a position already. More important, send it to any agency who eliminates this position in a budget-cutting move.
  • Give an award to any reporter or editor who consistently publicizes volunteers in a good way. Give a satirical "boo" to any reporter or editor who either refuses to publicize volunteering or who presents volunteering in a stereotypical way.
  • Contact labor unions in your area who seem to be fighting volunteer involvement and offer to conduct a workshop for them on why volunteers do not threaten jobs and can even help save some.

2. Grab any chance to make your point.

Prowl the newspaper and listen to local radio shows. Whenever something comes up with relevance to your organization and/or to volunteering in general, react. Send a letter to the editor, call in to the talk show, invite a reporter to visit. Get volunteers to respond, too. Take photographs all the time and build a press file so that you have interesting shots to accompany your media contacts.

3. Form coalitions and collaborations.

Instead of always recruiting volunteers one-by-one, recruit existing organizations and corporations to commit their members to projects (adopting your cause). This aligns them with your organization in many different ways and re-positions the volunteer program office as a community resource developer beyond "finder of individuals who want to help." Collaborate with other volunteer programs to form training cooperatives, hold large recruitment fairs, make an (Unpaid) Labor Day display in the town square. If you are seen to be part of a larger effort, your organization gains the publicity and you, as an individual, get the credit for putting the organization where the action is.

4. Be someone else's expert.

No one is a prophet in their own land. To be appreciated inside your own organization, you first need to seem valuable to someone else! And the further away, the better. Get a colleague from another organization - as distant as possible - to invite you to conduct an in-service training workshop for his or her agency, or to visit as a "consultation." If the other site pays your expenses (and, ideally, writes a check to your organization as a "fee," though this would be icing on the cake), watch the reaction of your boss and in-house colleagues to this activity. Wow, you must know something! (You can make this a part of idea #1, using your professional association to set up an exchange schedule.)

5. Be quoted.

Write something and get it published with attribution. Yes, this means writing articles for something like e-Volunteerism, but it doesn't have to be that involved. Post a reply to an article in this online journal or become an active participant in a listserv or other online discussion forum. When others respond to something you've said, print it out and attach it to your monthly report or circulate it to department heads for their comments, too. Take a leadership position in your professional network, or in any community group (civic club, Chamber of Commerce, board of another agency) and be the spokesperson for that. It almost doesn't matter why someone else finds you newsworthy - the halo effect applies to how you'll be seen back at the office.

6. Volunteer.

As a practitioner of volunteer management, you have skills that many organizations would covet. You have the right to seek volunteer work in your private time that is a complete change from your daily job, but maybe you can get a new perspective by contributing your time to a cause very different from that of your agency. Pick activities that allow you to meet people in different professions who can give you access to community leaders. Offer to help organize a community-wide special event. Join the disaster response planning team. Serve on a government advisory group. Don't wait to be asked, since chances are no one realizes that a volunteer program manager might be interested in helping. Send a letter with a resume, stressing how you think your professional skills will be helpful to this effort. Then be sure folks back at the office know that you've been selected!

To any reader still uncomfortable with the topic of Power: Power is energy. It can build as well as destroy. The point is not to aggrandize yourself but to assure that the volunteers you have brought together can be the most effective force possible. Margaret Mead pointed out the power that volunteers inherently have when she said: " Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." As leaders of volunteers, we must work to assure such empowerment.

Read Steve's Point of View

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