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Are We Asleep at the Wheel? A Frustrated Volunteer Manager Speaks Out

Are We Asleep at the Wheel? A Frustrated Volunteer Manager Speaks Out

Volunteer manager D.J. Cronin has a passion for volunteerism and the sector of volunteer management. He believes that volunteerism is an agent for real and tangible change around the globe and a key to harnessing volunteer effort. And he believes that in today’s busy and challenging world, the role of an effective volunteer manager in Australia and elsewhere has become more critical to the sustainability and growth of the volunteerism movement – challenging volunteer managers not only to lead their teams but to embrace their roles in demonstrating the value of volunteering to government, policy makers and society in general.

But are volunteer managers asleep at the wheel? In this e-Volunteerism article, Cronin explains why he thinks they are, and why it’s time for them to wake up. Cronin first reviews how the volunteer management sector bemoans a perceived lack of understanding of their roles in society – complaining about everything from the paucity of sector resources to being underpaid and undervalued. Then Cronin argues that it’s time to cease the blame game and take a good, cold look at how volunteer managers are performing. In the process, Cronin challenges volunteer managers to stop ignoring data on volunteer management, to recognize that professional bodies are not “packing a punch,” and to understand why nearly half of all volunteer managers today do not intend to continue in the field by 2013.



To read the full article

Mon, 04/05/2010

Having recently attended the Advanced Retreat for Volunteer Managers and been witness to your “Are We Asleep at the Wheel” session DJ, I saw first hand the discussion that ensued. The professional development that I gained from this retreat has now given me the tools to respond to your article in a more articulate and insightful way.   In my opinion we need to start believing in ourselves as managers because "if we don't believe, we can't achieve".  We need to make our dreams become our realities through our vision and our self belief.

Perhaps we need to stop being so insular and start associating with other managers - their issues and ours may not be so different.  I would suggest that we seek out opportunities to network with other managers such as joining organisations like the Australian Institute of Management or equivalent organisation in the U.S.A.    As far as I am aware there is no qualifier in this organisation as to what type of manager you are.

Perhaps this is the entire point.  Are we so busy looking at why we are different that we are missing the similarities between ourselves and other managers.

Do we attend "Management Conferences"?  Ok, so they may not talk about volunteers but what if there was one speaker at such a conference who spoke on issues specific to managing volunteers?  Could not other managers benefit from information about managing people and apply this to their own workplace?  Is this not an opportunity to spread the word about Volunteer Management?

Don't get me wrong, I am all for following the UK's lead in incorporating Volunteer Management into Volunteer Conferences or perhaps having a separate Volunteer Management Conference.  Why can't we go to management conferences and conferences specific to Volunteer Management?  There is definitely a need to support and encourage each other within the VM sector but again are we preaching to the converted?

Perhaps it's time to use our critical thinking to broaden our perspective and think outside the VM sector box.

Submitted on 27 March 2010 by D. J. Cronin, author of this article
Hi all. I wanted to respond to the respondents! I do realise that this may be an uncommon practice but those who know me will understand that I never like to tow the same boring line. Cutting to the chase I just wanted to say that I was pleasantly surprised and a wee disappointed by the reaction to this article. In fact I expected a little backlash. This backlash did not arise. Although I am a little unsure if one respondent was outraged at my view or was outraged at the state of volunteer management. They said they would write again once they had composed their thoughts – I hope they do.

Some of the editors of this publication have informed me that this article drew more commentary than any in its 10 year history! And indeed I have to tell you that apart from the direct responses to the article on this site I have received several comments and emails from Volunteer Managers across the globe! But on closer inspection and on a deeper reflection I have reason to further my belief that our profession is still asleep at the wheel! OK, 11 people responded. To an article that was so critical of our sector. That this is deemed a success reflects where we are as an articulate sector! 185 responses would have been pleasing given the subject matter!

I converted the jist of this article into a workshop that I presented at the retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management in Adelaide in Australia. I was accused of “beating the drum for volunteer managers” ( and your point is?) and of being too political by some! At least there was debate. I would have liked to see some debate on my article. Debate is healthy for our sector I believe. I wanted to utilize critical thinking.

Because I love to research and explore I have discovered gems of articles written over the last 10 years or so on volunteer management. At the end of the day however may I dare to say, in my humble opinion a least, that we are saying the same things, asking the same questions, making the same mistakes and holding back true advancement in our sector of volunteer management.

Will someone find my article in 10 years time and publish something somewhere under the title - “still asleep - what has changed?’ I hope not though I fear so.

What do we need to do to change? Really change! I don’t have the solutions now. I am just hoping that by waking up and realizing things are pretty dire in the grand scheme of things (yes I acknowledge localized heroes and their success stories!!) that we may activate some real change.

Submitted on 26 March 2010 by Rob Jackson, Founder, UKVPMs, England
Thanks for "telling it how it is" again DJ.

Some quick observations.

First, the volunteer management conference we've just had in England was for volunteer managers, volunteer centres (VCs) and student volunteering workers.  It deliberately sought *not* to do a separate event for volunteer managers.  Instead it recognised that managers (I prefer leaders) of volunteers are an essential part of a wider volunteering movement and that has more to gain from coming together to learn and network together than we do from staying apart.

IMHO we have to strike a balance between keeping volunteer management distinct from the rest of the movement because our field sometimes has differing needs than other elements (such as VCs), whilst not divorcing it completely from a wider volunteering movement.  For to do so would take us out of the field and not put us at its heart where we belong.

Secondly, when you talk of money, I always think it would be interesting to count how many people pay their membership dues to bodies like AVM and AAVA from their own pocket, not their employer's budget for volunteering.  For me, this is a key measure of our personal commitment to the field.  Do we put our money where our mouth is or do we cop out and let the agency pay?

I'm proud that I pay my own dues to AVM here in England - always have, always will.  It means I have a vested interest in my professional body, not my employer.  It is *my* career I'm investing in, *my* profession and *my* field  - not my employers (whoever they may be) - so I should be putting up the money...and I do.

Submitted on March 4, 2010 by Scott McLeod, Director of Volunteer Services, The Children\'s Aid Society, New York
As a more recent addition to the field with five years of direct experience, I have found that the parallels between human resources and volunteer management to significantly overlap.  As a result, I have begun to term our work as "human asset management". This is helped in defining clearer goals and objectives and begun to put unpaid staff into a different context, showing that volunteers require many of the same resources (supervision, training, feedback, etc) as paid staff.  Still, until organizations fully believe that volunteers will affect the bottom line beyond providing manpower and can indeed provide sustainable dollars and tangible resources in both the short and long term, we will struggle for acceptance and understanding of the field.

Submitted on February 24, 2010 by S. D. Hine, Wellington New Zealand
I share your despair, frustration and dismay at VM complacency, inadequacy, inaction.  You highlight the headlines that would really set VM alight.  You have canvassed all the issues: the lack of a career path, the rate of turnover, the self-deprecation and all those things in between.  Thank you for expressing it all so well, even though you are repeating what many have iterated before.

You have given us a really good analysis.  What makes me sad is that analysis is not always powerful enough to generate change.  Indeed, knowing what is wrong, what needs to be done can create a kind of paralysis.  I can’t afford the time.  You note this is a common cry – to which I would say: You cannot afford not to make time.

I could go on at length about the meaning of a profession, and the educational pathways to professional status (I am not convinced that traditional tertiary training is the ultimate qualification for VMs, at this stage).  I could go on about the effusive praise from government for volunteerism and its contribution to GDP while they ignore completely the vital commitment that leadership and management of volunteers makes to NFP services – and to the effectiveness of delivering state-funded services.  I could go on and on about media items (including websites) extolling the virtues of volunteering with never a mention of volunteer management  and  how (for example) an organisation’s number of volunteers jumps 5-fold in just two years.  I want to shout from the roof-tops the results of the Global Volunteer Management Survey undertaken by People First - Total Solutions, because by and large a recent small-scale survey in Wellington New Zealand replicated those results.  (Just keep an eye out for publication of a national research project on Volunteer Management, undertaken by Victoria University, due mid-year.)

A much better soap-box is to take the stand on what a few of us are doing at a local level.  We have stopped wringing our hands and saying ‘ain’t it awful’; we have learned that Analysis alerts us to Opportunities – and by heck we are not letting any get away.  We have learned the power of language and dropped ‘my’ (volunteers, newsletter, database) from our vocabulary, with startling results.  We have started to use ‘leadership’ more often, because in small organisations that’s a less imposing word than ‘management’.  We do not let a news media mention of volunteering escape a response, pointing out that ‘great volunteer programmes don’t just fall out of the sky’.  Incidental contact with NPF Chief Executives has allowed us to bend some ears about the volunteer contribution to their organisation and to feed ideas and resources for better practice – and the ears are not deaf.  OK – this is small-scale stuff.  We have plans to engage with others around the country, and to find appropriate ways to promote VM at both local and national levels.  We are also collecting good news stories to insert in newsletters.  And all this has happened through awareness that we could do something, that we could be part of a solution, and not remain stuck in the mud of the problem.

You can be heartened by supportive responses to your article.  And I hope you have noted that one of your headlines has been achieved: Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management Sells Out!  You see – there are still people out there who want to make a difference.  I am one of them, and I will be at the Adelaide Retreat in mid-March.  I could tell you a thing or two about small coinage of change that is happening in the VM world where I live.

Submitted on February 22, 2010 by Stephen Moreton, Head of Education and Development, Attend, UK
Thanks for stimulating the discussion DJ, and for articulating concerns that have been developing around the perception and raison d'être of volunteer management.

I am becoming more convinced that for volunteer management to find its own identity and realise its contribution to the world, it needs to engage with the wider world of people management.

It is widely acknowledged by leading writers and practitioners that effective people management requires an organisation to encourage people to go the extra mile and volunteer their talent, their time, their intellect and creativity, and their commitment and loyalty. There is more than an element of truth in saying that quality people management IS volunteer management!!

What therefore is there implication to us as a profession? It means we have something to offer the wider world of work. Within volunteer management practices and philosophies there are 'secrets' that organisations have not yet discovered for encouraging staff engagement.

It means that the volunteer management profession has a duty to engage with the wider world of world and share these lessons and philosophies - after all, which of us in our capacity as paid staff, do not want to be treated as a volunteer by those that manage us?!

Currently the response of the VM profession appears to focus on 'separatism' and 'specialism', with volunteer managers re-stating that volunteer management is different to managing paid staff, and that no-one can manage volunteers effectively unless they have been specially trained. In fact the phrase ‘Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management’ typifies this approach.

However, one of the more controversial conclusions here is that the ‘thinkers with eternal patience’ you refer to that are ‘passionate about the advancement of our sector’ have a vested interest in volunteer management being separate and specialist, and this skews the advice given to the sector.

As an aside, I find particular value in the ‘Orange RockCorps’ statement "I am who I am because of everyone". Surely the volunteer management profession (that is currently struggling to define itself) can seek to discover itself and its purpose in the world, by considering how it interacts with everyone else. This is how people grow, and it’s how organisations grow. The profession needs to have the confidence that it has a unique offering to the people management agenda, and the faith to believe it can find its place without losing its fundamental identity when engaging with others.

If we fail to embrace this journey, I fail to see how volunteer management will establish itself as a sustainable profession. It appears that we keep staring intently at a few pieces of the jigsaw and are failing to see the picture we are part of…

Submitted on February 21, 2010 by Wendy Moore, Volunteer Coordinator, Hospital,
Brisbane, Australia

Some may consider your comments confronting, but I believe they are valid and reflect your passion and enthusiasm for promoting the Volunteer Management Sector.

Until I discovered my destiny in volunteer management, some years ago, I was unaware of the existence of the volunteer management sector.  With the guidance of more experienced volunteer managers, I have subsequently been introduced to online forums, websites, seminars, workshops and networks.

Please continue to challenge the complacency of a sector so desperately in need of your candor, commentary, vision and leadership.  Well Done DJ.

Submitted on February 12, 2010 by Diane McKinna, Coordinator of Volunteers.
Memphis Museums, Inc., TN/USA

This article disturbed and enraged me.  I have been a Volunteer Manager for over 25 years and chose this field as my profession.  I have sought training and enrichment where I could with the resources that were available to me.  I have struggled with titles, pay compensation and fought to have my profession valued in the organizations I have worked for - some with success, others with failure.  I hope to write a better response to this article.  I am participating currently in a Leadership Class and would like to share this article with the Class Leader and possibly the class.  

Submitted on February 11, 2010 by Angela Phillips, President, Florida Association for Directors of Volunteer Services, Florida, USA
Your article was very timely.  Our state association for healthcare volunteer managers is currently struggling with this issue.  We are trying to determine the reasons for a  declining membership.  Is it due to economic conditions or is the association not meeting the needs of the volunteer management professionals through education and support.  We also hear the reason of "we're so busy", no time to participate in the professions growth.  A real wake up call to the perception of the profession recently came to the associations' attention when we discovered that a hospital volunteer from the state had been invited to participate in a health care reform meeting in Washington, DC, but not one healthcare volunteer management professional from the state was invited to attend.  It is certainly time to look at how we're promoting our profession when a volunteer is perceived to have more to contribute to a national meeting than the professional.

Submitted on February 10, 2010 by Clare O'kelly, Manager, Volunteer Resources
Fraser Health, British Columbia, Canada

I kept nodding my head as I read this article. Two things I would add. One is the gender issue. Women generally make less than men, and don't recognize their full worth, and we are a female-dominated profession. I believe this is a big part of the picture. Secondly, as a profession we have problem putting up boundaries. Too many of us take on too much, with too little resources. We try to do it all, and then wonder why we aren't provided with the resources, pay, etc. We won't be until we demand it by saying "No", I cannot do this without additional resources.

Submitted on February 10, 2010 by Elizabeth Ellis, Volunteer Administrator/ Trainer,
Wisconsin,  USA

I appreciate your frankness and candor on the subject. With a lifetime career based in volunteer management, I see myself as a professional in a field which wanes in its awareness and appreciation. Through the years I too have attended and presented at numerous local, national and international conferences, workshops, been involved with  networks as well as created them, completed certificate programs, trainings, classes and even designed my B.A. to reflect the various components I felt necessary to articulate and validate my background. I both created and named my Nonprofit Administration and Resource Development. I created this title for my degree to emphasize the multiple areas of discipline I saw within the role of a Volunteer Administrator/Director/Manager and still find it difficult to articulate the multiple skills and responsibilities held in this role.

For over 20 years I’ve followed my passion, developed skills and applied my knowledge of volunteer program development, management and direction within the nonprofit sector. For a short while, I worked as a volunteer coordinator for the Dept. of Corrections, recruiting and managing volunteers providing pro-bono services to incarcerated adults. In all, I’ve work for over 7 nonprofits in this capacity and throughout my journey experienced the lack of value such an individual holds. It’s not to say that the many colleagues and volunteers I’ve met and worked with haven’t appreciated my work and visa versa, however the monetary compensation lacked … seemingly equating a lack of value for my work. If one was to align the role of an HR Director or Company Trainer with a Volunteer Manager, the similarities would be astounding and financial value equaled. Yes, I’ve heard the quote that “if you’re looking for financial compensation and wealth working as a Volunteer Manager, then you should look somewhere else.” I unfortunately think we’ve set ourselves up and are in the position of “working to validate our profession” because of this mentality.

What will it take to post the “no whining” sign on our business cards, outside our office doors or on our signature lines? It’s certainly not that we do not provide great value to our organizations and services to our clientele. It isn’t that there aren’t programs and classes to take to validate our educational background or that there aren’t networks to join or take initiative to create allowing for sharing of knowledge and resources among our colleagues…. We simply need to walk the walk, expect respect and compensation in our field.  It’s sad when such seasoned volunteer managers are trying to translate their incredible skills and abilities to other job opportunities… in part due to having been burned or becoming burned out as a volunteer coordinator.

Another headline suggestion:

April 2010 Managers of Volunteers invited to speak at the United Nations and Nations Capital of their Contributions to our Nations Services and Economy

Submitted on February 10, 2010 by Jenny Fuller, Coordinator/Manager, Hospice Care Southern Tasmania, Tasmania, Australia
I agree wholeheartedly with your call for a degree or diploma level qualification for volunteer managers.  I happen to have a BA, but have looked in vain for many years for a more focused course of study to undertake. I attended a PVM Retreat a couple of years back, but haven't done another because I wasn't sure that much would be gained for me personally or professionally by doing so, as many seemed to reiterate the same old...I wanted more intellectual/academic topics rather than the 'trouble with recruiting/recognition/risk management' stuff.  I've done my job for 15 years now, very happily, but yes, there is some tougher thinking I'd like to engage with.

Submitted on February 10, 2010 by Lynnel Walters, Director of Vol Svcs, Yavapai Regional Medical Center, Arizona, USA
I wish I could disagree with your points, but I can't. I think much of what you say is on target. That said, I wasn't even aware of the survey you mentioned, and I have to wonder if there were a lot of others who didn't know of it.  My answers would have been very different.  After 13 years in the field, I can't imagine doing anything else and fully intend to continue working in Volunteer Management. I think I'm given the resources I need to have a dynamic and vital program (950 volunteers in a rural regional hospital with 150 beds, though I know that's not the only measure of effectiveness), etc. though I'm probably paid less than others doing similar work (HR Director?).  In the end, it's communicating with each other that needs beefing up - I use the list servs and other forums for us but we need to do more. We can't advocate for our profession and raise the level of people attracted to it if we're not talking to each other.  Thanks for saying what needed to be said!

Thu, 02/18/2010

Submitted February 8, 2010 
Thank you, D.J., for writing this, and thanks to our colleagues at e-Volunteerism for encouraging you to share your thoughts with a broader audience. I think you'll find active leadership within the many subgroups of volunteer management - I saw that in Denver several years ago, when representatives from so many disciplines gathered for COVAA and subsequently created  Whether this larger group can mobilize all managers of volunteers, regardless of institution, remains to be seen - but it certainly gives one hope. I've enjoyed reaching out to fellow managers in the museum field as I welcome state liaisons to the American Association of Museum Volunteers. (I serve the Western Region).

So many of us hold up our volunteers as examples of dedication and success throughout the year - perhaps now is the time to invite mid-career and long-term professionals to share what they love about their respective roles/projects as a way to encourage involvement in International Volunteer Managers Day that I believe now falls on November 5th. On a personal note, I'd feel awkward with special attention on this occasion, but if it gives me a forum to tell everyone what it is about my work that keeps me at it after 15 years in the same organization, then I'm in 100%.  With my work hat back on, I'm also thinking - ooh, this would be a great assignment for a journalism intern!
Thanks for restarting the conversation, D.J.
All the best,