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The Strange History and Future Direction of Our Field's Professional Associations

The Strange History and Future Direction of Our Field's Professional Associations

When e-Volunteerism started a decade ago, one of our target audiences was leadership of our field’s professional associations of volunteer program managers.  For several years we even ran a special Keyboard Roundtable feature on issues facing DOVIAs (the generic “Directors of Volunteers In Agencies” name for local professional societies). Since 2000, we’ve watched local, state/provincial, national and even international associations launch, thrive, wither, revive, or stagnate – in dozens of countries. Our conclusion? There is still no consistency of purpose or success among these various groups, though the need for professional exchange remains as critical as ever.

In this Points of View, we examine the history and context of professional societies in general, and of those in volunteerism in particular. And then we consider how needs have changed and what we might do collectively in the future.

History and Context

It is hardly a modern phenomenon that people want to know, talk to, learn from and collaborate with others in their professional field. In medieval Europe, practitioners of skilled trades had their guilds which, among other things, formalized a system of training future generations through apprenticeships and sometimes even university education. Someone became a “master” in a chosen craft both through hands-on experience and by acceptance from peers in the guild. Over time, this process evolved into more modern “accreditation” and “licensure” procedures. It didn’t matter if the trade was white collar or blue collar, or whether the group called itself a professional society, a trade association or a labor union. They all shared some common denominators of purpose because they:

  • Defined the practices of their field.
  • Created standards of competence and excellence.
  • Educated and validated newcomers to the field.
  • Provided opportunities for practitioners to meet one another and exchange ideas.
  • Represented the trade or profession to the public.
  • Increased the capacity of practitioners to improve service (and build a career ladder for rising through the ranks in the field).
  • Negotiated for the collective, whether to influence legislation or develop purchasing clout.

Attempts to form associations for volunteer management follow this same pattern. 

However, some important factors have negatively affected professional societies in our field, and help explain some of the struggles we’re still facing. Consider the following:

  • The majority of volunteer leaders do not carry this responsibility as a full-time job. A 2003 survey in Canada by Environics (unfortunately no longer available online) found that 34 percent of those who manage volunteer programs spent less than 10 percent of their time on these duties; about 20 percent spent between 11 and 25 percent of their time on volunteer management. Many of these self-identify with another profession altogether.  So they may be active in a professional society, but of social workers, fundraisers, librarians, occupational therapists, whatever. These volunteer program managers want help in “how to” do their work with volunteers, but they are not pursuing a career in our field for the long term. Volunteerism associations, therefore, have always juggled the needs and wants of these part-timers with those of focused and forward-looking colleagues.
  • Even people in full-time volunteer management jobs do not necessarily see this as a “career” field. This is reflected in the incredible turnover rate among volunteer managers, with about 25 percent per year changing positions, often out of the field of volunteer management altogether. The Environics study found that 53 percent of volunteer managers had been in their current position for three years or less. There are no clear promotion paths in volunteer management, and chronic low pay forces many to move to different jobs simply to advance in status and income. Professional societies need a mix of veterans and newcomers to pass on experience and to succeed at long-range projects. Ironically, this lack of long-term commitment to the field, and constant turnover in members, also works against one important professional development option: rising to leadership in the professional society itself. In other professions, the peer recognition of election or nomination to a leadership role – starting locally and ultimately advancing to nationally and even internationally – conveys honor and stature. In volunteerism societies, we often struggle to fill boards and committees.
  • Professions train their members through university courses, which gives them an ongoing pool of future members. In contrast, volunteer management is rarely an academic curriculum and so we have no easily-identifiable pool of people who study to be better volunteer program leaders. We also do not have a faculty of professors who are devoted to furthering knowledge in the field (only researchers in a range of disciplines who occasionally look at random volunteer-related topics). In addition, many of the other professions with links to volunteer utilization (social work, nonprofit management, library science, environmental studies, etc.) commonly fail to devote much or any attention to management of volunteers in their curricula.
  • The more established a profession, the more likely (at least at the national level) it will have a corps of paid staff to do the daily administrative work of association management – leaving its members free to volunteer on substantive activities that center on the growth of the profession. With only a few notable exceptions, volunteerism associations need their members to do it all – attend national award ceremonies, balance the books, organize  conferences and put stamps on mass mailings.
  • We are hard to find. Because we do not share a consistent job title, we can’t be identified as a target audience for anything. Have you ever tried to rent a mailing list for our field? None exist. Ironically, even national organizations often do not maintain a list of which staff members in their local affiliates or chapters are designated to lead volunteers! If we can’t find each other, we can’t communicate with each other, and we can’t invite colleagues to attend conferences or join professional societies.  No national association in the U.S. has ever topped 2,500 members and very few state associations have gone beyond 500 (associations in other countries are even smaller). Yet a conservative estimate of people responsible for volunteer engagement in the U.S. is over 300,000! Clearly, we are invisible even to each other.

All of this shows that our struggles to form viable associations are rooted in issues inherent to our field. But there is no future for our profession, as a profession, unless we succeed at organizing ourselves to benefit our practitioners and to have an impact on the larger world.

What Has Changed. . .or Ought to

One of the constant questions association leaders face is this: “What do our members need and want?” 

When Steve and Susan started in the field in the early 1970s, there were plenty of volunteers but no books on volunteer management, no training opportunities and only a scattered few volunteer centers. Susan often reminds people that Philadelphia has one of the oldest professional societies (today called Delaware Valley Association of Volunteer Administrators or DVAVA); when she joined in 1971, meetings consisted of about 15 people sitting in a circle and, one by one, sharing what they had done that month.  “Show and tell” was the entire meeting agenda until she and two friends ran the first-ever association workshop on student volunteers.

Happily, we’re way past that point now. Yet most volunteer management associations are still focused on the same training and information-sharing methods that were utilized 20 years ago.  Local DOVIAs, state and provincial associations, and even national societies have generally not adapted to the changing world of our field. While most have discovered the Web, they aren’t exactly sure what to do with their Web sites and too many have “cobwebs” of never-changing information.

At one time, the cost of printing and mailing any type of outreach was prohibitive to a low-budget organization. If nothing else, the Internet has totally leveled the playing field for any size organization to spread the word about itself and its programs. Money is not the problem; imagination is.

Here are some of our reflections and ideas. Once we started thinking outside the box, new possibilities opened up. We’ll hope this will happen to you, too, and that you’ll add some ideas of your own in response.

The Past

(and maybe still today)

Maybe in the Future...


Program meetings, workshops and conferences centered around finding guest speakers to educate those who attended in person. There was rarely any continuity between the topics or between what other associations in a region examined.  

  • Instead of reinventing a session at each meeting,  program chairs make use of what’s already available and lead a localized discussion about it.  Examples:

    • Members attend one of the many free or low-cost Webinars and, at the next meeting, review and critique it.
    • Conferences representatives carefully report back what they learned for discussion with all.
    • A selected book is purchased in bulk (getting a discount for everyone), read by the meeting date, and dissected together.
  • There’s a Web cam set up at all events so that members who cannot attend in person can at least listen in.

    •  Sessions are open to non-members to participate online, too, with a charge for the service.
    •  Members of other area professional societies are invited to join online, too. By doing this reciprocally and immediately, the amount of possible information available to members in every group is multiplied.
    Keep in mind, however, that this kind of distance training is designed to attract in-person participation, not substitute for it.  All studies of association behavior show that success is contingent on getting members personally involved. Watching is no substitute for participating, and for getting to know the other members of the group. Social relationships are as important in professional associations as they are in any other kind of volunteer effort.

Collaboration with other professional associations occurred rarely.

  • A collaboration is formed with several associations to create a list of meeting topics and speakers. Dividing up the list, each association then works to develop a one-hour program.  Each is videotaped and made available to all.  This collaboration could even culminate in an annual conference of all the associations, to allow “next step” discussions among participants, all of whom learned the same material during the year.
  • Joint meetings are scheduled with associations of related professionals (human resources directors, fundraising specialists, etc.), with time to talk together on the subjects they share in common.

Membership development efforts were mainly done one-by-one, starting with current members and moving out to others they know. If an individual changed jobs, there was little attempt to get her or his replacement to join, as well.

  • The association makes it a goal to amass a targeted outreach list and keep it current. This means identifying who in a community is responsible for volunteers – the positions, not just the individuals. E-mail invitations are sent to all of them, whether they immediately join the association or not.
  • When a member changes jobs or leaves the field entirely, outreach is done to his or her replacement. Members changing their positions are asked to leave a note to their successor,  recommending they contact your group.
  • Less emphasis is placed on tangible “benefits” of membership and more on how membership keeps a professional informed, in the loop and current.
  • The association’s Web site provides a few free, public examples of the kind of information available to those who join. (Remember that many members will be paying out of their own pocket and need to see an immediate value in belonging to the group.)
  • The Web site also has an area specifically written (and highlighted) for NON-members, explaining why and how to join.
  • “Mentors” or “buddies” are assigned to new members, both to give assistance and to start fostering the building of relationships. This gives a nice role to the older, more experienced members.

Web sites are mainly provided for current members, but simply offer lists of meeting dates, officer names and such. Some try to offer resource information, often poorly duplicating what is already available elsewhere. 

  • A key responsibility of the association’s secretary (a position that is almost otherwise meaningless today) is to keep the information on the Web site current. This does not mean the secretary has to be the Webmaster – posting the information is technical and can be done by someone else; we’re talking about the content of the site.
  • The members identify what information is specific to their local situation or setting and therefore ought to be on their Web site because it won’t be anywhere else. This might include:

    • Legislation or regulations for their locality
    • Local government offices providing relevant services
    • Meeting spaces and other accessible resources
  • Conversely, there should be a section for NON-members who seek help and information about local volunteer management. This would help the non-member (who could be a politician, a reporter, a funder, etc.) find one of the association’s members.
  • There are links to other Web sites – lots of them.  But they are annotated, explaining why they are recommended to the members. Examples:

    • Major sources of volunteerism information
    • Online registries where members can post volunteer opportunities

The association’s Web site is static, not interactive.  Most of the information is old, simply designed to be read, and the site looks the same every time the member visits it because new information is often buried, not highlighted.

  • The entire message of Web 2.0 is that everything in the future needs to be interactive. Sites must allow members to post comments, have discussions, upload their own materials and generally get involved in as many ways as possible. The best example of this currently is the site of the UK Association of Volunteer Managers. Here, you can blog, argue, find or upload stuff, and generally rub elbows with old friends and new acquaintances.

Associations think and act locally, even seeing themselves in competition with state/provincial and national groups.

  • Negotiate access to each other’s events at discounted prices.
  • Invite officers to schedule exchange visits.
  • Rent a bus and bring an entire group of members to an event a distance away, thereby lowering the transportation costs and allowing for a shared experience.
  • Arrange site visits to one another’s agencies,  providing an introduction to how the volunteer program actually runs. This both interests the visiting volunteer managers and generates visibility within the organization.
  • When Days of Service occur in a community, the association prints its own t-shirts and participates as a group. This gets publicity and  attracts some of the more obscure, casual  volunteer program managers who are out working at the event with their own groups.

We could go on, but you get the idea. The old models for professional associations are being deconstructed and rebuilt, and volunteer managers are no exception to the need for making an adjustment in how they operate. Our job to develop viable professional associations is harder than most, which means we need to be both quicker and more innovative. The good news is that this is easier than you think, since there are some very good models out there.

A complete list of volunteer manager association Web sites is posted at Energize, Some of our favorite volunteer manager association Web sites are:

In building our professional associations, we need to remember that the same principles that are relevant in creating a good volunteer program apply to fostering a professional association. Some of them are:

  • There can never be too much communication, and it needs to come from all directions. People don’t want to be “talked to” – they want a conversation.
  • Relationships matter. Creating friendships operates as the glue that keeps people coming back.
  • Time is scarce, and people need to see what they are getting and giving in return.
  • Participation builds participation. The best associations are beehives of activity. The simplest signs of health in an association can be measured by the percentage of members who are actively involved.

But most importantly – and true in all of volunteer management – we need to remember that we are not just in this by ourselves. There are others just like us from whom we can learn. And those who will come after us will benefit if we make the effort to build the professional associations that will nurture and support them.

To add or view comments

Tue, 04/06/2010

Checking the vision statements for the associations listed in this article, I feel unexcited about the world we are trying to create. The focus appears to be on things like:


  • Being a respected professional association
  • Furthering the interests of volunteer managers

The vision needs to inspire - we need to explain our raison-d'etre and the difference we can make in the world. This bit needs to be done before we come up with strategies, tips and techniques to improve the current situation. Surely Energize/e-Volunteerism is well-placed to stimulate this discussion...?