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If You Think Education is Expensive Try Ignorance

If You Think Education is Expensive Try Ignorance

One of the most interesting things about the profession of volunteer program manager is that those who first enter into the job generally do so with a blissful degree of ignorance.

To avoid offending anyone unintentionally, let us be quick to point out that this ignorance is not so much personal in nature as it is professional – which is to say that rarely, if ever, have new practitioners received any prior education or training in operating a volunteer program and have probably never even read anything about volunteer management. This state of affairs is generally compounded by the fact that no one else in the organization has ever received any training in working with volunteers either, making it difficult to receive much help through on-the-job training.

This is, you must admit, a decidedly strange thing.

And charitable organizations rarely attempt to remedy this situation by insuring that newly hired volunteer program managers quickly receive a comprehensive background in the intricacies of volunteer involvement. The resulting behavior of over-whelmed and under-educated new volunteer managers is commonly to simply do things they way they have always been done, in hopes that at some point in the history of the program someone actually knew what they were supposed to be doing. Unfortunately, as we all know, as the world changes and volunteer involvement becomes increasingly complex, simply doing things the way they have always been done is a recipe for slow disaster.

In fairness, this isn’t always the case. Some new managers can’t find information in the files on “the way things have always been done,” and become desperately creative. At which point some of them fall foul of Leonardo da Vinci’s sage advice: “Avoid experiments the results of which die with the experimenter.”

What is most sad about this is that there currently exists a vast and useful body of knowledge about volunteer behavior, best practices in volunteer management and operation of successful programs. This knowledge comes from research studies by academics, the practical experience of program managers, and the efforts of national organizations to gather and distribute useful information. There is, in fact, so much being written about volunteer involvement that it is difficult to keep up with it all, which is where educational programs that distill the essential points into a few hours of presentation come in very handy for the busy program manager.

Many years ago, when Admiral Hyman Rickover was in charge of the early development of nuclear submarines in the United States, he called his officer cadre to a meeting following a disaster that had almost resulted in numerous casualties among the construction corps. After reviewing the situation and its cause, he made the following observation:  “We all need to learn from the mistakes of others – none of us will live long enough to make all the mistakes ourselves.”

Believing that this is as true in volunteer management as it is in the development of nuclear submarines, we’d like to suggest a few ways in which volunteer managers can improve their knowledge about the field.

1. Take a Basic Training Program in the Essentials of Volunteer Management

Nothing substitutes for having a broad introduction to volunteer involvement that provides a sense of context for the work you will be doing. A 2004 survey in Canada reported the following:

When asked what kind of training would be the most useful to them, managers of volunteers gave many different responses. We grouped the responses into eight categories: volunteer recruitment, management skills, retention, communications, policy development, problem solving, data management, and other. Almost three in ten (29%) respondents said that training in management skills — including people management, volunteer management, and time management — would be most useful for them. More than one quarter (26%) said that training in recruitment issues such as selecting candidates, screening/interviewing, and skill matching/replacement would be most useful. Fourteen percent of managers told us that the most useful training they could receive would be in the area of retention, including such topics as how to orient, motivate, evaluate, and recognize volunteers.2

We’d frankly include some less immediately practical topics, such as the history and philosophy of volunteerism. It’s nice to know why you’re doing things, in addition to knowing what to do.

Almost every community offers such a basic volunteer management course, through local colleges, the Volunteer Center or DOVIA, or from independent trainers and consultants. It is a great investment of two or three days of time.

2.   Invest in “The Little Library of Volunteer Management

OK, there isn’t really anything by that name, but there ought to be. Former volunteer program managers in your organization probably had some books and journals, but since they paid for it out of their own pockets they undoubtedly took their library with them when they left.

For an investment of about $100 (US) you can make a pretty good start on acquiring your own set of accumulated wisdom of the ages.3  Of course, owning books is only worthwhile if you read them and we all know about best intentions and the demands of time. So be creative, but deliberate:

  1. Schedule 30 minutes a week into your appointment book, close your office door, and read one chapter or article at a time.
  2. Form a book club with some colleagues and meet for lunch, maybe every two months, to discuss a volunteer management book you selected as your focus.
  3. Enlist key volunteers in leadership roles to each read one chapter of a book and then get together for a briefing on the entire work.

3.   Join Your Local DOVIA and Match Wits with Your Peers

DOVIAs (local associations of volunteer administrators, going by a variety of names) and state/provincial professional associations are a great source of information and opinion, and most of them provide it in at least two ways:

  • Sponsored workshops on a variety of topics – some even run multi-session conferences
  • Informal discussion sessions of various sorts, either during or outside of regular meetings

Other volunteer administrators are amazingly happy about sharing everything they know with people who might – in the corporate world – be viewed as their competitors. Fortunately we’re a lot smarter than that.

Urge your association to create a more useful membership directory that goes beyond a simple list of names and contact information. Think how you might use a document or Web site telling you which members subscribe to which journals, attend which national conferences, have which volunteer management software, are willing and able to be guest speakers, etc. Given that most DOVIA members cannot attend every regular meeting, such a directory would assure that you learn about the full range of resources colleagues might offer, without waiting for a lucky encounter in person.

4. Learn from Volunteers

Schedule periodic “think tanks” with volunteers in your program and enlist their help in identifying trends and strategic planning. It’s amazing how often we find ourselves talking about volunteers instead of with them. Naturally we interact with individual volunteers on a daily basis, but for professional development purposes, you need to be more intentional.

For example, brainstorm 12 questions that might elicit valuable responses from the diverse people who volunteer in your organization. Each month, post a new “Input Question of the Month” prominently on a bulletin board, Web site, online discussion list, and/or anywhere it will be seen. Ask the same question at meetings during the month, too. Record the answers, which might be received via response cards on the bulletin board, electronic forms on the Web site, individual e-mails, or in group discussions. 

What sorts of questions might you ask? A few ideas:

  1. Where else do you volunteer and how does your experience there compare with your experience here?
  2. If you could make one change in the way we do things in the volunteer office, what would it be?
  3. What is your opinion of our new policy on the use of cell phones and personal headsets here?
  4. What is the most meaningful form of recognition you have ever received as a volunteer?
  5. What has surprised you here?
  6. What skill(s) do you have that we have never asked you to share with us here?

Most important: ask questions at every opportunity and listen to the answers. Compare what teenagers say to what seniors say, or men vs. women, or volunteers in one unit vs. those in another. Everything you do has an impact on volunteers, yet do you really know what they think about your policies and procedures – and might they have even better ideas?

Be sure to report the responses back to everyone, too, which reinforces that you actually looked at them and will get you even more ideas the next time around.

5.   Budget to Attend a National Conference

The first one you attend will probably be within your own field (a setting-specific conference or affinity group meeting), especially if you are part of a national network. This is a great opportunity to compare notes and practices with people who are doing essentially the same kind of work that you are.

After a few years, however, we’d recommend going outside your own field and attending one of the more general national conferences for volunteer program managers.4 This is an excellent way to get a very broad view of what is happening and to get outside the tunnel vision that sometimes develops among similar organizations.

Cost is certainly a consideration, but such events generally rotate around a country so that each region gets a chance to attend every few years without the expense of airfare. Check out if the conference offers full or partial scholarships. You can often enlist the help of the sponsoring organization to find a roommate for sharing hotel costs (sometimes it’s even possible to stay in the home of a colleague in the host city). Consider advance planning with members of your local DOVIA to rent a van or share rooms.

Keep in mind, too, that some states and provinces have excellent regional conferences. While you may initially think such events are only for residents in each area, the truth is that most conference organizers are thrilled when someone from further away wants to attend. Don’t let artificial government boundaries stop you from planning to go to a gathering that crosses a “border,” yet is closer in travel time than something held at your official capital city – or gives you an excuse to visit far-flung friends or relatives. And there’s always the working vacation concept, especially if you pick a location you’ve always wanted an excuse to visit (and some tax deductibility for doing so).

6.   Stretch Your Brain at an Advanced Retreat

Conferences provide a nice education, but usually in short and relatively simple doses. Retreats and seminars, on the other hand, are designed for experienced practitioners who know the basics but want to really wrap their minds around difficult issues, future trends, and the state of the art.

To have even more fun, consider combining this with a vacation to exotic territories, maybe with a few site visits thrown in – see for one intriguing possibility for 2007.

7. Challenge Your Usual Perspective

One great way to learn is purposely to seek out someone working with volunteers in a totally different field and see what you have in common. It’s easy to assume that “our setting is unique,” when it probably isn’t. So make a point of sitting next to someone at each DOVIA meeting who works someplace that seems removed from what you do. The same holds for checking the nametags at a large conference and striking up a conversation with someone whose organization is either unknown to you or seems a polar opposite. At the very least, it should be an interesting few minutes of talk!

This idea works for learning things outside of volunteer management, too. A colleague of Susan’s working in a public agency shared a strategy that she referred to as "take a jerk out to lunch." Based on local media stories or on personal experience in public meetings, she'd identify someone in the community who seemed to have a world view she couldn't stand or seemed to be from "the other side" in some way. She'd invite the person to lunch as a professional exchange opportunity. And so each month she either confirmed that her 60-minute companion was indeed evil or stupid or both, or – more often than not -- she came away with some new perspectives. This was in a small town and, after about a year, someone new that she called responded with: "So, I'm the target this month, huh?" Despite this surprise, the basic premise makes a lot of sense (and will give you a monthly lunch break).

Another way to shake up your perspective is to read publications written for volunteer program manages in different settings or, even better, for colleagues in different professions. Ask to borrow a journal from your organization’s human resource director, development officer, or even the executive director. Bet there will even be volunteer-related information there, though possibly under a different label such as boardsmanship, special events planning, or civic engagement.

8.   Reflect and Write about What You Know

Perhaps the greatest contribution that the service-learning community has given to the larger volunteer involvement community is the reminder that reflection is the best way to make sure you learn.  

It’s hard for volunteer program managers to take time from busy schedules to reflect and learn from their experiences, but it is really the only way to ensure that you’re not making the same mistakes tomorrow that you made today.

If you’re disciplined, the best way to reflect is to force yourself to write about what you have learned, thus passing that knowledge on to others. You can do this informally through the various volunteer manager listservs,5 or more formally through writing for publication.6 Bob Baxley, a Web designer, wrote the following in the introduction to his first book:

I decided to write a book because I wanted to learn how to be a better designer. I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of what I had been doing for the past decade, and the best way I knew to do that was to try to explain it to somebody else.7

9.   Mentor Others

If you won’t write, you can at least talk. We can’t find who said “teaching others is the best way to learn,” but whoever it was knew what they were talking about. And in the 11th century, John of Salisbury wrote:

Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.8

Volunteerism exists because of its own giants, many of whom you can find profiled in Susan’s “Voices from the Past” feature in each issue of e-Volunteerism. These were the people who mentored and nurtured many of us, and both our lives and the field would have been poorer if they had not been willing to pass on their thoughts and experiences.

You can be one of these giants, if only to one other person that you help.


Neither of us feel that we have said anything revolutionary in this Points of View, but every once in a while the subject of self-development bears revisiting. Since we believe that one of the most important roles a volunteer program manager fills is that of in-house educator – the key advocate for effective volunteer involvement – it is vital for all of us to keep our knowledge current and our ideas fresh. The payback for carving out time to do this is a broader reservoir of concepts and techniques with which we can tackle our daily challenges. Besides, much of this can be fun…and lead to rising on the career ladder, too!

1Generally attributed to Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University. He should know – Harvard currently has an endowment of $29.2 billion dollars, the top among US universities.
2Fataneh Zarinpoush, Cathy Barr and Jason Moreton, Managers of Volunteers: A Profile of the Profession, Imagine Canada, 2004,
3As Steve points out, the obvious way to find things is through, the largest bookstore in the field.  There's even a recommended "starter set" of materials.  Try the downloadable books – a great source of instant gratification.
4In the US, the Points of Light Conference is notable for having the widest imaginable set of attendees. Most countries have a similar event, usually sponsored by a national umbrella organization.
5CyberVPM. OZVPM, and UKVPM being the most useful.
6Like e-Volunteerism, for example. We’re always looking for articles or for people who can contribute to the discussions on our Keyboard Roundtables.
7Bob Baxley, Making the Web Work: Designing Effective Web Applications, 2002.
8You might have heard this attributed to Isaac Newton who once said “If I have seen further [than certain other men] it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Robert Merton wrote a great book tracking down this concept: On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript, Free Press, 1965. In contemporary times, Google Scholar has adopted “On the shoulders of giants” as its motto.

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