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The Other Half of the Volunteer World

The Other Half of the Volunteer World

In the very first issue of e-Volunteerism, we wrote “Bridging the Divide”. In that essay, we identified the chasm that separates volunteer program managers and the leaders of all-volunteer groups (civic and service clubs, faith communities, professional societies and lots of other membership associations). As we begin our eighth year of publishing this journal, it’s still very clear to us that working with volunteers who are self-led and working with those in agency-based programs has more similarities than differences. And the need to connect the two halves of the volunteer world remains as great as ever.

There is little evidence that most agency-based volunteer program managers ever talk to the officers of all-volunteer groups or vice versa. Those of us who do training and consultation, however, always move comfortably between the two halves. This means that the material we present for one “side” works equally well from the perspective of the other “side.” Yet we struggle to get our separated audiences to talk the same language, read the same books and periodicals, attend the same conferences, or visit the same Web sites. What a waste of potential!


Clearly, we all work with unpaid participants: agency-based colleagues “recruit volunteers,' while all-volunteer leaders are concerned with “membership development.' Yet we all talk about welcoming newcomers, increasing participation, gaining involvement, assuring accountability, length of retention, getting volunteers/members to accept leadership roles and recognition. And the skills of accomplishing these goals are compatible and transferable.

There are many issues that mutually affect both agency-based and all-volunteer efforts, issues that we could tackle much more effectively if we worked together. For example, we each:

  • Need to recruit new volunteers and members, especially young adults.
  • Monitor the systems and processes we use and evaluate how inviting they are to newcomers.
  • Seek to expand the diversity of participants, especially to include a wider circle of racial and ethnic involvement.
  • Become frustrated at our inability to get media attention for the good work we do.
  • Share a concern for the hot-button topics of risk management and the difficulty of obtaining reasonable insurance premiums.
  • Express concern over government rules and regulations, such as tax deductions and tax credits.

And, of course, we all worry about funding.


If we share so much in common, why is it so difficult to work together?

  • The skills of volunteer management are directly transferable to membership development and leadership. But the officers of all-volunteer groups simply do not identify with volunteer management itself – not as a field and certainly not as a profession. Conversely, the invaluable skills that leaders of all-volunteer groups tend to possess − especially skills in dealing with political situations − are often unrecognized by volunteer managers.

  • Many all-volunteer groups do not have a physical base of operations; the contact information (postal address, phone, even e-mail) changes as the officers do. This lack of continuity makes it very hard to maintain communication, unless the officers themselves make a point of changing and updating contact information. High turnover rates and the lack of an institutional memory (or even a filing cabinet with good notes) create a similar problem among volunteer managers, especially in small nonprofits.

  • Most all-volunteer groups do not recognize the value of collaborative projects. They feel competitive in recruiting new members and want to avoid any opportunity for another group to steal “their” volunteers. Of course, this attitude is prevalent in agency-based volunteer programs, too.

  • It rarely occurs to all-volunteer groups to pool resources and do joint training of new board members and officers – focusing on generic skills apart from the specifics of each organization. Because all-volunteer groups are unaffiliated with resources such as volunteer centers or academic nonprofit management programs, they do not receive announcements of workshops and conferences at which they could learn new skills side-by-side with other community leaders.

Selfish Reasons to Reach Out

As we outline why volunteer program managers and all-volunteer group leaders should work together, we’d argue that it’s good for the whole of volunteerism. But if this argument doesn’t persuade you, then let’s get practical. Let's review some of the great potential benefits of aligning ourselves with association officers:

  1. Most all-volunteer groups do community service projects, especially to fundraise. They are always interested in new ideas – both for new causes and for innovative activities that will be attractive to their members while helping the cause. So if an all-volunteer group adopts your organization, you may wind up with a very valuable asset of both hands and money. In fact, you can make this an open agenda. Talk about how the group might raise the funds to support the project they will then staff. Once established, these relationships can continue for decades.

  2. All-volunteer groups are self-organized. So if they become volunteers together for a big event, or “adopt” a project or a regular shift of work for you, they will coordinate themselves. You certainly should orient and train all the members. But when it comes to parceling out the work, scheduling and even finding replacements for missing members, you can expect the group leaders to take over. In many ways they are the ideal volunteers – experienced, accustoming to working together and self-managed.

  3. If the volunteer program is not as diversified as you wish, find all-volunteer groups that include members from the populations you most want to attract. As you collaborate, you will learn a great deal about the new population and both of you will get acquainted in a natural and evolving way. Successful collaboration will eventually lead some members of the all-volunteer group to ask for ways they might get more involved with you as individuals, too.

  4. If you are seeking community visibility or political clout, find an all-volunteer group that will bring these assets to you. If the right group becomes involved in your cause, there’s no end to the possibilities for greater influence where it counts or for more resources of all types (cash, goods, access to top levels of companies or government, etc.).

  5. Past presidents of all-volunteer associations are sometimes at loose ends when their terms end. They’ve already risen to the top of their hierarchy, so what happens now? Well, some of them might be enticed to re-direct their leadership skills in the volunteer office and help you to run the volunteer program.

The benefits run both ways. By working with an agency-based volunteer program, the all-volunteer group might obtain some needed help, too. Consider these examples:

  • In exchange for a long-term commitment of participation, the group may gain meeting or storage space, a permanent mailing address or clerical support. The commitment might also result in new ideas and projects, the possibility of greater visibility and becoming part of a larger effort than your group could manage on its own.

  • Sometimes the most appealing part of a project is the hands-on activity, not the logistical planning. Cooperating with an agency takes the A-to-Z preparation off the shoulders of the volunteer officers, since the volunteer program manager will be facilitating the event and/or coordinating many of the details. This frees the volunteers to concentrate on staffing and accomplishing the activity itself.

Making It Happen

Any individual volunteer program manager can approach any all-volunteer group and start talking. A very simple way to begin the process of reaching out to all-volunteer groups is to ask current volunteers – and paid staff – if they belong to a civic club, faith community or any other associations, and get the name and contact information of their presidents. Don’t be surprised to learn that your most active volunteers are even more active in the community.

Also, read the section of your local newspaper that used to be called the "society pages.” There are always photographs and articles about big fundraisers and community projects, in which the leaders of the event are identified.

There are other ways to help the two halves of the volunteer world find each other. For example, why not send invitations to the presidents of all-volunteer groups to attend a Directors of Volunteers in Agencies (DOVIA) meeting? Make sure the topic of the meeting is relevant to everyone, and intentionally greet the guests and make them feel welcome so that they will want to join and stay involved. You might even make the all-volunteer leaders the focus of the meeting. Ask them to make a short presentation on what they do and how they operate, or even how they deal with the challenges of recruitment, supervision and recognition.

Another strategy comes in conference planning. If we really want to include the officers of all-volunteer associations in our conferences, then we have to demonstrate that by our scheduling. Why not organize the program to give conferees a free afternoon, then reconvene for evening workshops? Many would welcome the chance to see a host city in daylight, and leaders who are themselves volunteers would be able to attend something with substance in the evening. We could even offer evening-only registration plans.

Volunteer Centers are missing some opportunities here, too. How often is someone from the all-volunteer world honored during National Volunteer Week? When are these groups mentioned in articles or newsletters generated by the Volunteer Center about volunteering in the community? Volunteer Centers have long been instrumental in organizing DOVIAs and Corporate Volunteer Councils (CVCs) – why not a “President's Circle"?

It seems a legitimate role for a Volunteer Center to: 1) compile and maintain a database of civic groups and other all-volunteer associations; 2) provide neutral ground for their officers to meet; and 3) offer services to these leaders of volunteers. This might mean training in a wide range of relevant skills, from boardsmanship to running meetings to membership development. And it might mean offering the Volunteer Center as a meeting place or contact point, to permit the community to find these groups more easily. In return, the Volunteer Center could gain new supporters with hands, hearts, influence and cash!

We’d be extremely interested in responses from readers about this topic and welcome news of any effective collaborations going on out there. We continue to want e-Volunteerism to be one forum for facilitating exchange among the two halves of our volunteer world and, someday, to have truly bridged the divide.

Editor’s note: In the first three years of e-Volunteerism, we included a feature section to focus on issues relevant to leaders of all-volunteer associations, civic and service clubs, faith communities, professional societies and other groups with none or only a very few paid staff (These articles, of course, are still available to you in the archive at Our purpose was to demonstrate that working with volunteers who are self-led and working with those in agency-based programs has more similarities than differences to explain our perspective. Melissa Eystad did a wonderful job as editor of that feature section but, unfortunately, we were unable to find anyone qualified or willing to replace her and so lapsed the section as a regular piece. If anyone wishes to apply now, the idea still has potential! Contact us at

To add or view comments

Thu, 10/18/2007

I think there are two additional "disconnect" points. The large volunteer organizations have paid staff that identify more closely with association management as their career and consider volunteer management an interpersonal skill in addition to their profession. Volunteers sometimes think that paid staff (in either field) are doing exactly what they do for "free" and therefore value staff expertise less. In some cases, staff HAS less expertise than these experienced volunteers who often have excellent workplace skills and experience that too often paid staff don't let them use. Focusing on the mission is the key to building a collaborative team in either world.