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Creating a Viable National Association for Leaders of Volunteers

Creating a Viable National Association for Leaders of Volunteers

The recent demise of the Association for Volunteer Administration (AVA), affecting mainly Americans, has surfaced many issues around both the “profession” of volunteer management and the design of a possible association that would serve the needs of managers of volunteer programs.  Because Susan also has the forum of the Energize, Inc. Web site, she has already shared some perspectives on her vision for a new organization, especially the recommendation that it focus on the United States, later collaborating internationally with other national professional associations (see her Hot Topics of March and April 2006).

In this Points of View, Steve and Susan first talk about the structural elements of any professional association, as related to the volunteer field, and then give their totally personal notions of what such an association should be for our colleagues in the US.  For purposes of comparison we’ll talk about AVA, but we’ll also look at how other professional associations in volunteerism have chosen to operate. You’ll find a listing of some associations outside North America at and of those within North America at

Elements of a Professional Association

We’ll start by outlining some of the major elements of a professional association and examine some of the choices within these elements that need to be made.

The obvious defining characteristic of any association is who is determined as being with the purview of its membership.  This is an area that in the history of volunteering has actually witnessed more contention than is common within professional groupings due to the peculiar nature of those who manage volunteer programs.  Key issues in this element are:

Diverse or Focused
Should the association seek participation from all types of volunteer programs or should it focus on just those from certain types?  Volunteering in the US occurs in an incredible array of program structures – social service agencies, educational institutions, sports clubs, political campaigns, churches, all-volunteer groups, government agencies, advocacy groups, corporations, etc.  Most associations of volunteer managers have tended to focus on just one or a few of these organizational structures, even while claiming broad representation – 90% of the membership of AVA, for example, tended to represent managers from structured non-profit agencies involved in delivery of social services.  The membership of most local DOVIAs1 tends to represent these same groups. 

The reason for this pattern is mostly accidental – colleagues are invited to join through familiarity with existing members, not through any proactive outreach effort.  Historically, too, these associations were initiated by those in social service agencies, which has strongly influenced both the program type and gender of the membership. Steve once attended a DOVIA training where the door prizes were flower table decorations – much to the bemusement of the two male volunteer fire chiefs who were attending the meeting, probably for the first and last time.

A common pattern in many associations is to allow broad representation among the membership and then create sub-areas around specialty or structure that allow for more focused connections.

Paid or Unpaid
The first AVA meeting Steve attended was almost his last.  The entire “agenda” for the meeting was an argument over whether unpaid volunteer managers could be members.  This is not an issue that you will see debated in other “professional” associations since most of their membership is salaried staff.  Volunteer programs, however, have a broader staffing pattern, with full-time and part-time paid managers as well as those who volunteer to manage other volunteers.  The majority of “volunteer managers” in the US are probably unpaid, especially if one factors in sports clubs, faith communities, and grassroots groups.

Core Volunteer Program Manager or Ancillary Responsibility
Most professional associations are composed of people who actually get to spend the majority of their time practicing that profession.  This is probably not true of volunteer program managers, although figures are a bit sketchy.  Jeffrey Brudney, author of Volunteering in the Public Sector, once estimated that the average government volunteer program manager spends less than 10% of work time on volunteer management.  Similarly, Susan used to staff the Corporate Volunteer Council in Philadelphia and a survey of members there revealed that no one spent more than 10% of their time on coordinating their company’s employee volunteer program.  The Urban Institute reports that among paid volunteer managers in charities more than half spend less than a third of their time on volunteer coordination. The typical Director of Volunteer Services in hospitals has about eight areas of program responsibility in addition to managing the volunteer program. A 2003 survey in Canada found that a third of respondents spent less than ten percent of their time in managing volunteers. 

The lack of focus on volunteer management is one reason so many people doing the job do not think of it as their profession.  And that, in turn, affects both who joins a professional association in this field and what they want from it.

Individual or Organizational
Should membership be offered to individuals or to their organizational structures?  Most professional associations are based on individual memberships but, in volunteering, the issue of “who pays?” makes this a more open discussion, especially for those who can’t persuade their organizations to cover the costs of membership.  Yet professions are made up of individuals, not the settings in which they practice their craft.

Long-term versus Short-term
Most professional associations are also composed of people who both entered their field of work intentionally and intend to stay within it.  Neither of these is true of volunteer program managers, most of whom begin work without any previous experience and many, if not the majority, of whom only intend to remain within the field for a short period of time.  This obviously makes operating a professional association much more interesting.  A 2003 survey in Canada found that half of the responding volunteer resource managers had been in their jobs less than three years.  In addition 60% of them had never belonged to any professional association, which is probably indicative of their attitude toward being part of a “profession.”

As an illustration of what a broad-based definition of membership would be, consider this from the Scottish Association of Volunteer Managers:

We are for anyone involved in the supervision and management of volunteers and volunteer resources, salaried or otherwise, full-time/part-time, whatever their title. We are happy to advise the wider sector as well as members.2

The Urban Institute estimated in 2004 that 174,000 charities involve volunteers and 129,000 congregations in the US involve volunteers.  That certainly gives an adequate size target group for membership.


How broad an area can an association serve? In the US we have a relatively large number (several hundred) of local associations of volunteer resource managers, a few state associations, and a couple of national associations, with similar patterns in Australia, Canada and the UK.  AVA claimed to be an international association, but clearly lacked the resources to make this dream a reality, especially given the growth of other national volunteer program manager structures who were clearly better able to serve their own constituencies.

The general requirements in this area would seem to suggest two things:

  • Associations should serve only the territory that they can truly serve.
  • Associations can more easily serve areas to which members naturally relate.

Key Services

 Professional associations tend to offer a similar mix of services:

  • Information resources – best practices, research, FAQs, a Web site, a professional journal, sample forms and policies
  • Networking – directory of members, forums for discussion, listservs, newsletters
  • Training – conferences, online tutoring or presentations
  • Professional standards – ethics of the profession, skills accreditation
  • Mentoring – either formal or informal
  • Advocacy – lobbying and promotion of the profession, as well as expressing positions on issues affecting the context of professional practice and those being served
  • Ethos creation – member recognition, maintenance of history
  • Participation – opportunities for involvement through committees, leadership roles and voting

Mode of Operation

Successful professional associations seem to have three characteristics beyond effectively delivering the services described above:  accessibility, inclusiveness, and collaboration.

They make it easy for the membership to connect with the association and with the services it provides.  This means in practice that they strive to make services affordable and to find means of delivering the services that can effectively reach the entire membership.  You will find that most associations today are utilizing the Internet as their primary technique for achieving this goal, both reducing the cost of services and ensuring full-time access by membership no matter their location or timeframe.

Successful associations attract the involvement of their membership in areas beyond accessing service.  In flourishing associations, the members themselves both provide a majority of the services – through interaction and mentoring of other members – and are actively involved in the operation of the association.  In turn, the association strives to both invite and encourage active participation of the membership.

The association attempts to expand its impact by working with a broad range of those organizations and individuals with similar interests.

Susan’s Dream View

For a long time I have not been happy with AVA and, while its dissolution was not what I wanted, this is indeed an opportunity to re-think the model of a professional association for volunteer administration.   There are some things I hope we learn from the past:

  • Any new association needs to avoid marginalizing its members, who are the profession.

For over a decade, AVA moved slowly but surely away from member engagement.  First regions were eliminated – effectively ending any mechanism for members to confer formally on a more local level. Annual meetings rarely posed any question on which members actually voted, let alone debated.  More and more the board felt empowered to conduct all association business without member input or approval – and members acceded to this with little dissent. 

I would hope that a new association will keep its members provoked – in the best sense of that word!  There are so many issues confronting us that deserve healthy pro and con discussion.  We are still an emerging profession and that means we have not even defined everything we stand for yet, let alone reached agreement on many topics.  Differences of opinion are good because it demonstrates we’re thinking (an excellent professional discipline).  Where do we stand on mandated service? On tax incentives to volunteer?  On the best placement for a volunteer resources manager within an organization’s hierarchy?  Together, we need to articulate what we want and why.

  • Any new association should: operate as transparently as possible; welcome debate as healthy, not controversial; and trust its members to deal with difficult issues professionally. 

This hardly needs any defense as a position, but deserves to be expressed as a wish.  It is my belief that people can imagine things as much worse than they really are; telling the truth is often a release of tension, not a cause of it.  

  • Any new association must engage members of the profession (not paid staff) as its key spokespeople. 

A number of years ago I spoke for a chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women and was surprised to discover that their top paid staff member was an Irish Catholic.  She laughingly shared what she said to the amazed personnel committee interviewing her for the job:  “Look at it this way.  There will never be a moment during my time with you when it will not be crystal clear who should speak for the association.”  This is quite profound.  A healthy professional association recognizes that it’s the members who have the vested interest and best knowledge about the profession itself, since they practice it.  The staff should focus on running the business end of the association, while the board and other key leaders represent it to the public.  

We in volunteer management have an additional problem:  So many people think they know what we do, when they don’t!  Frequently someone with a degree in social work or ministry takes the job of running our professional association and feels totally comfortable giving public presentations about the field.  On the other hand, it also is problematic to hire employees who come from the ranks of members.  When the paid exec is also “of the profession,” the lines get blurred and, unintentionally, the members are again not utilized for the resource they are. 

Perhaps the best way to avoid this problem is to give the top paid staff member any title except “Executive Director” or “President.”  The title Chief Operating Officer, Executive Secretary, or something like that would convey authority over administration, but not the right to represent the profession.

  • Any new association must recognize that is not a “nonprofit agency.”

The “Carver Model,”5 in which a board of directors takes a totally hands-off approach from daily operations, only works in large institutions (if at all).  It is totally wrong as a model for a professional association, which is very different from an “agency.”   By this I mean that it is a collective, in which those being served and those doing the serving are mostly one and the same.  It’s the members’ money that pays for things and that gives the members true ownership. 

This is one of the major reasons I disagree with Steve about becoming a sub-unit of the Points of Light Foundation (though I truly value their current attempts to step into the vacuum left by AVA’s disappearance and think they can serve as a temporary incubator for a new organization).  My argument is the same as for why a DOVIA ought to collaborate with, but be separate and independent from, a local Volunteer Center. 

The Foundation and Volunteer Centers are agencies, not associations.  Their boards are the sole authority over their work, and their boards are self-perpetuating (by invitation, not election).  Further, “membership” means “access to services”; there are benefits that accrue from the annual fees, but no responsibilities – and very few rights.  Outside funders are the main source of income and frequently call the shots about priorities.  Agencies like The Foundation and Volunteer Centers are not necessarily guaranteed long life and can come and go with the vagaries of politics, mergers, and money.  They cannot exist without money because they are “entities” with paid staff, physical facilities, etc.  [Note:  Our non-American readers should substitute the name of any government-funded or private national body existing in their country.  The issues are the same.]

A professional association, particularly as Steve and I have been discussing one here, is for, of and by its members.  The rationale for its existence extends for as long as there are practitioners of the profession and (the need for secure funding notwithstanding) ought to have some permanence free of the day’s political winds.  Conceptually, a professional association can exist on the barest of budgets as its identity comes from its members, not from a spot on a map.

Absolutely we are all part of volunteerism in its broadest sense.  We share many values and our missions mesh, particularly our mutual belief in the importance of volunteerism and volunteers.  But both The Foundation and local Volunteer Centers are actually stronger when there is an independent association of volunteer resources professionals that can speak its collective mind.  Merged into Points of Light, a new professional association must accept whatever happens next as decided by the Foundation’s board or future Congressional elections; independent, a professional association can collaborate with Points of Light on any or all programs of genuine mutual interest, always allowing for not agreeing with some direction taken. 

  • Any new association must be an advocate for volunteers as well as for leaders of volunteers.

Probably the worst conversation I ever had with an AVA board member was in 2000 when I questioned why AVA had no plans for celebrating the International Year of Volunteers 2001.  I was told:  “Well, that’s for volunteers, and we’re for managers.”  The really sad part?   Word for word this exchange was repeated three times with three different board members. 

Of course there is a difference in perspective between frontline volunteers and those who lead them, but our profession has no meaning or purpose without volunteers.  As professionals, we ought to have a clear philosophy about the value of volunteering in our society and see ourselves as legitimate advocates for what volunteers need and deserve:  respect, funding, recognition, and more.  Besides, fighting for what’s best for volunteers has the ripple effect of elevating our work as leaders of volunteers.

So…what do YOU think?

Steve’s Dream View

I have one strong opinion and then one area of wishful thinking when it comes to creating a viable association to succeed AVA.  While I express this in American terms because we happen to be confronting a start-from-scratch situation here, I believe these concepts can be applied to any country seeking to build a strong professional association.

First, I strongly support the notion that membership should be broad-based – covering all areas and all types of volunteer managers.  Size is important to successful organizations, creating both monetary and other resources. To me one of the clearest signs of the “failure” of AVA is that for 20 years its membership stayed within the 2000-2500 range.  Given the immense growth and popularity of volunteering during that time period, this was a remarkably depressing statistic, indicating the insular approach that pervaded AVA, probably unconsciously.  I also find it philosophically appropriate that an association dedicated to the principles of volunteer involvement proactively invite the participation of both those who are and are not paid to lead volunteers.

Second, my dream is a federated structure rather than a recreation of a strict “national” association.  Given the peculiarities of volunteer management I’d prefer to see an organization that grows from local DOVIAs to a national unit.  Local associations provide the ultimate nexus for attracting new members and providing direct services.  Among other things, the rapid turnover among volunteer managers makes it extremely difficult to operate just a national organization.

I’d like to see a national umbrella organization that ties all this together, led by a combination of elected individual members and representatives of the local DOVIAs.  This national unit would provide many of the services outlined above, but focus on delivery via the Internet rather than in person. 

Feeling a responsibility to do more than dream, here’s my notion of how to get from here to there:

I’d recommend that the new association form as a sub-unit of the Points of Light Foundation, which has a pretty good history of working with similar groups, namely the National Council on Workplace Volunteerism and the Volunteer Center National Network.3 The relationship with the Volunteer Center network would be particularly useful, since it is far easier to operate a successful local DOVIA in collaboration with the local Volunteer Center than as a totally independent effort.

Eventually I’d like to see sufficient growth of local DOVIAs to form federations that provided services on a statewide basis.  I can remember a period 25 years ago when strong statewide volunteer efforts existed – and where more than half of the states had annual volunteerism conferences that, in some cases, attracted more than a thousand participants.

And eventually I’d like to see an international federation form out of the various national programs that are developing.  I think at this point for the US to imagine that it can or ought to anoint itself as the international leader is both bad strategic policy and unrealistic.  Frankly I’d be willing to make the argument that the US is no longer the leader in the cutting edge of volunteerism, especially given the amazing things now going on in the United Kingdom.4

So…what do YOU think?

_______ 1DOVIA – Directors of Volunteers in Agencies, a generic term used here for any local association of volunteer program managers.  See
2 See



4 See, to begin with, for some examples of things we aren’t doing in the US.

5 Based on John Carver’s various books and presentations,

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