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What’s Wrong about the Way We Teach Volunteer Management

What’s Wrong about the Way We Teach Volunteer Management

Between them, Steve McCurley and Susan J. Ellis have about 70 years of experience in teaching volunteer management, providing training for more than 500,000 managers of volunteer involvement. In this Points of View, these well-known trainers and authors nonetheless acknowledge that they have gotten some significant things wrong in their years of training. This transparent Points of View helps explain the authors’ training mistakes, and how this relates to the credentialing theme of this issue of e-Volunteerism. As volunteer managers know, training has a direct bearing on the challenges of trying to accredit a profession for which so few people are adequately prepared.

The Root Causes

One of the very interesting things about volunteer management is that almost none of those who are responsible for managing volunteers know anything at all about that responsibility when they begin work.  Most of them have never studied the field in college or ever read a book about it; many of them have only minor experience in actually running projects that involve volunteers. This begs two questions: first, why are unprepared people hired into such positions?; and second, why do our colleagues take these jobs in the first place?

Informal research tell us that most folks sign on to be volunteer managers as a stepping stone into that place of employment or field of service.  As a result, most training in volunteer management becomes a kind of remedial education delivered to those already in that role but trying to catch up on the knowledge base.   

In fairness, it is almost impossible to enter this field with some formal education in volunteer management because, with very few exceptions, it remains totally neglected by universities. Though it may surprise you, this includes most educational institutions that offer degrees in nonprofit management.  You can take classes in accounting, strategic planning and lots of other useful subjects but you will have a hard time finding even one course devoted to how to effectively lead a volunteer workforce.

This means that the training modules – delivered through national organizations; state conferences and local trainings sponsored by volunteer centers; associations of volunteer administrators; and increasingly offered these days on the Web – are all a form of more sophisticated self-training. In summary, after learning-by-doing, practitioners who are articulate about their work create curriculum for their peers.  Individual sessions may be excellent, but there is no agreement on what should be taught or what materials should be used. In fact, most organizations want to reinvent the training wheel, rejecting generic volunteer management resources in favor of developing their own “branded” in-house offerings. This is a bit like every hospital rejecting accepted standards of infection control in order to develop approaches unique to each hospital.

Our Perspective

Compared to anyone else in the world, we have probably done more training of volunteer program managers for every kind of volunteer effort imaginable. And – if we can say so without seeming arrogant – we’ve really quite good at it.

So it may seem odd that we would be writing a confessional Points of View in which we admit to our “mistakes.”

This is not, however, an indictment of what we do as much as it is a lament for what we – and most other training and technical assistance provider and national organizations – do not do that would truly improve the overall strength of volunteer engagement around the world.  And at the same time, improving what we do not do would raise the level of competence of those whose job it is to lead volunteers.

So, in no particular order, here’s our list of What’s Wrong about the Way We Teach Volunteer Management:

1.  We ignore that most managers of volunteers are volunteers working in all-volunteer systems.

Much of the literature and research in volunteer management focuses on organizations, either charitable or governmental, that have a mix of paid staff and volunteers. Most of the national resource associations involved in volunteerism work primarily with organizations that have a strong paid staff component. Most training done on volunteer management includes a focus on getting staff buy-in and participation – beginning, of course, with the notion that the person in charge of the volunteer program is a paid staff member.

It might surprise you to learn that this isn’t the norm and certainly isn’t close to being the majority. The greatest number of volunteer-involving entities throughout the world are very small, minimally organized groups of volunteers simply doing something they think needs to be done in their community. They don’t have any paid staff and don’t really want any, though they may have one employee who does everything from maintaining the account books to emptying the trash after a meeting.

We are not talking solely about tiny rural communities here. Take a look around. These predominantly volunteer organizations include most faith communities, civic clubs, self-help groups, amateur sports leagues for youth and adults, mutual interest or hobby clubs (like garden clubs), auxiliaries and friends groups, parent-teacher associations, and more.

These groups don’t get a lot of attention, and those who manage the volunteer involvement of these groups get even less. To our knowledge, only a few books have been written about how to manage this kind of system: Ivan Scheier’s classic When Everyone’s a Volunteer, a work only available because Ellis refused to let it die when its original publisher abandoned it; and Jan Masaoka's unique look at the dynamics of a board in an all-volunteer setting produced All Hands On Board: the Board of Directors in All-Volunteer Organizations published by what is now BoardSource, out of print but available online.

A lot of what we teach in traditional volunteer management can readily be translated to the system of the all-volunteer group.  But, as is common, something gets lost in that translation. Most importantly, all-volunteer groups have issues about volunteer involvement that you don’t see in organized charitable or government agencies; they traditionally experience much more complex issues around the personal and political (with a small P) relationships among the group of friends and neighbors who compose the work force or membership of the group.

2.  We ignore that most managers of volunteers are part-time and non-career.

This issue of e-Volunteerism focuses on credentialing of volunteer managers, a significant topic for professionals in the field and those who want to increase the professionalism of how volunteer program management is practiced. The bad news is that the majority of volunteer program managers – including those in organized charities and government agencies – probably don’t care a bit about this issue.

The reason they don’t is that most of them have no intention of having a career in volunteer management.  First, they were not educated in the area and they were not initially interested in it as a career; and second, many managers of volunteers see the position only as an entry job and move out of it as quickly as possible.

Even those who remain as managers of volunteers are increasingly responsible for multiple other roles, thus creating a part-time mentality.  Several years ago, Jeffrey L. Brudney, Ph.D., the co-founder of the Institute for Nonprofit Organizations and the new Master of Arts in Nonprofit Organizations program at the University of Georgia, conducted a survey of volunteer program managers in government agencies. Brudney found that, on average, managers of volunteers spent only 9 percent of their work time actually managing volunteers. Ellis posed the same question to people charged with running a corporate employee volunteer program – and got exactly the same response.

What, then, are those volunteer managers doing with their time? In many cases, the volunteer manager is already working full-time to deliver services to clients or manage a host of other ongoing projects – and volunteer management is simply piled on top of that. It’s also common for organizations to add volunteer management to someone deeply focused on raising money donors (and not really that interested in time donors), or to the person charged with other “external relations” such as marketing and client development. Clearly, the person responsible for involving volunteers is typically juggling a host of priorities – understandably distracted from focusing on volunteer management by “other duties as assigned” and especially when volunteer management is in addition to a primary job. As an example, when asked to count the number of other program areas they manage, we know that directors of volunteer services in hospitals report, on average, “above 10.”  This trend tends to hold true around the world, unfortunately.

Obviously, it’s hard to develop a “career mentality” around less than 10 percent of your work life.  It’s also really hard to do a good job of managing a volunteer program.

McCurley’s Volunteer Management, the most widely used textbook on this subject in the world, is a good example of how we haven’t really adapted to the part-time reality.  A part-time volunteer program manager or a manager with a short-term view of these responsibilities has absolutely no hope of doing most of the basic elements of volunteer management covered in that book.  Ellis’ (Help!) I Don’t Have Enough Time Guide to Volunteer Management attempts to show the short cuts, but acknowledges that one problem is that the timeframe for managing volunteers in most organizations is shrinking faster than the actual requirements of the position.

3.  We focus on teaching volunteer program managers to manage volunteers, not to manage the system that involves them.

Even among the core cadre of volunteer program managers – who have that role as a significant part of their responsibilities – we’ve probably taken the wrong course.

Most volunteer program managers get hired because they seem like the kind of person who can get along well with others, and that this aptitude for interpersonal relationships will serve them well in interacting with volunteers. It does, usually. But it also leads to many volunteer program managers spending most of their time relating to the volunteers and not spending enough of their time thinking about the organization and how it needs to adapt to provide a better environment for volunteers. This explains why there are so few strategic plans for volunteer involvement, and why many volunteer programs seem only loosely connected to the priorities of the their organizations.

The skill we haven’t taught in volunteer management is how volunteer program managers can, and should, be internal consultants – internal consults who focus less on individual volunteers and more on making the organizational a suitable and effective environment to involve volunteers. In the United States, the Paradigm Project of the Points of Light Foundation in the 1990s was one of the few real efforts to teach volunteer program managers to be consultants to their own and other organizations; McCurley considers it one of the great failures of his career that the Points of Light Foundation, where he severed as a consultant, was never able to convince other technical assistance providers to follow that example.  

4.  We do not offer training to colleagues in other professions who work with volunteers day in and day out – and we do not approach organizational leadership early enough to get them to think right about volunteer involvement.

Universally, the biggest obstacle to successful volunteering is resistance from paid staff and long-time volunteers. It’s no wonder. If the people leading volunteer involvement get no training until after they take the job, what does that tell us about the preparation everyone else has for staff/volunteer teamwork?  Despite the 99 percent likelihood that they will encounter volunteers often in their careers, almost no nurses, social workers, teachers, sports directors, emergency rescue workers, political organizers, etc., have received training in managing volunteers. They don’t even know what they don’t know.

Many decades ago, Hunter College professor Florence Schwartz had an interesting idea about solving the split between volunteers and paid staff in social work agencies.  She wanted to add volunteer management training to the curriculum of schools of social work as a requirement for graduation. Schwartz particularly wanted to include this requirement for those seeking higher education degrees in social work; after all, they are the ones most likely to become the leaders of nonprofits and government agencies, and knowing something about the potential of volunteer involvement would help them lead those organizations toward working more effectively with volunteers.  Alas, much to our loss, that effort never succeeded, either in social work or in any of the other education disciplines that graduate leaders of charities and government agencies.

Ellis has championed the importance of organizational leadership throughout her career, and her seminal work From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Successful Volunteer Involvementis considered the Bible in this area. The bad news is that it, too, is used primarily in remedial training, given usually after one has stepped into an organizational leadership role. The much more useful approach would be to use it as the text for training future leaders of organizations.

Our Conclusion

As we’ve admitted, we haven’t succeeded in breaking this barrier in volunteer management training – and it shows. Whenever we talk to volunteer management practitioners without also talking to their co-workers, we fight a losing battle. We have not insisted that our primary audience invite their bosses, at least one colleague, or even a key volunteer with them to our training events. We have presented at events where volunteer management is treated as a sideline topic – scheduled at odd hours and in small rooms, while the “important” topics are being discussed by the majority of conference goers who don’t even know our sessions are going on.

So here’s what we suggest: the next time you go to a meeting of volunteer managers and you notice that there aren’t very many new people; when you notice that there aren’t many people from small, all-volunteer groups; when you notice that there aren’t many people from leadership positions; and when you notice that there aren’t many paid staff who work with volunteers as part of what they view as their “real” jobs, don’t be surprised. Instead, consider this: if we haven’t paid much attention to helping them, why should they pay any attention to us?

To add or view comments

Tue, 10/25/2011
Thanks for this, Susan - you certainly hit a number of key points. That large number of organizations made up completely of volunteers is SO hard to reach. Sandra Murphy also developed a training course - called VIVE (Volunteers Involving Volunteers Effectively) - for Volunteer Canada late in the 1990's. At Vantage Point, we have not considered that group part of our target market (knowing we can't be all things to all people!). We have also learned even when there are employees who are paid with money there is very little focus on the "people part" of running an effective organization. There is rarely any people development. So the issue really is that we don't pay attention to the people! That seems to be totally opposite to what most would think. Yet very true.

Thu, 10/27/2011
A great article - thank you both. Towards the end you say "We have not insisted that our primary audience invite their bosses, at least one colleague, or even a key volunteer with them to our training events". Many years ago I invited my then line manager to attend the UK's Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management (you were both on the faculty that year I think). Whilst he had now formal training in working with volunteers he was a skilled and experienced leader and people manager so I thought, as he'd now gained responsibility for volunteering, he'd find the Institute beneficial. To this day he is, as a result of attending that course, a powerful advocate for volunteering in the organisations where he works. I therefore wholeheartedly endorse the suggestion that we should invite people like my then boss to good volunteer management training courses so they can 'get it'. Of course, that opens the debate about what 'good' training is...

Fri, 11/04/2011
Thank you for your thoughtful article. It is always a struggle (for all of your reasons listed) to elevate the value and professionalism of volunteers and the people and systems that support them. I do want to include the latest information via Reimagining Service on Service Enterprises. The service enterprise model is an attempt to build a solid infrastructure for service within the organization. The organization's cultural shift allows a solid foundation for volunteer management and their work to augment, enhance or advance the organization's mission to be viewed as a core function within the organization. This work to embed service into the organizations strategic plan is a higher level of thought leadership than most volunteer managers should be expected to take on. This work has to come from the President/CEO, Executive Director and Board of Directors at the organization. I believe the members of the Reimagining Service have come to that realization and are trying to promote this model through an organization accreditation or "stamp of approval" that has the credibility of the volunteer service top industry leaders...of which Susan's involvement has been a part. The only piece of the model that is missing is a component that allows for a blend of meaningful volunteer opportunity throughout the organization that allows for skilled, entrepreneurial volunteer led programming, departments, etc. designed to increase the capacity of the nonprofit organization to achieve greater depth and scope in services, funding opportunities and staff resources. Perhaps another bubble in the model that speaks to a percentage of board representation exclusively for volunteer leaders that are serving the organization at the ground level. Once again...great article.