Skip to main content

Reflections on Your Input: Still Keeping the Plural in Points of View

Reflections on Your Input: Still Keeping the Plural in Points of View

In the previous issue, we asked e-Volunteerism readers to help us in “Keeping the Plural in Points of View,” and a number of you did just that.  We received a range of thoughtful and provocative opinions about the major challenges facing leaders of volunteers in their everyday work and about trends, issues, or controversies the journal might pay attention to over the coming months.  Thank you!

Some of the responses were completely predictable but others opened new territory.  Briefly, let’s review the responses and then see what we might do together about the issues raised.

Some Things Never Change

Two overriding concerns surfaced repeatedly: the need to educate our bosses and colleagues about the value of volunteers and our work; and the need for more effective development of our profession.

Educating Colleagues

The phrase most often repeated by respondents was “staff buy-in.” Or, more specifically, how to get it. Whether new or experienced, whether inside or outside the United States, and no matter the type of setting, leaders of volunteers too often feel they are fighting an uphill battle to gain true understanding and support of volunteers. I have been working in volunteerism for 41 years and this has never changed. Unfortunately, it seems as if it has not even budged an inch. 

There are many reasons for this.  Just a few include:

  • A world in which we bestow status based on income and wealth, so that “working for nothing” seems second best.
  • Prejudice and negative stereotypes about who volunteers, why they do so, and what work they accomplish.
  • Priority given to raising money and managing paid staff, so that volunteers are pushed lower on the list.
  • It is actually easier to work with paid staff (who have a consistent schedule) than with volunteers (who offer a jigsaw puzzle of coordination challenges).
  • How few organization staff ever receive formal training in how to partner with volunteers – especially its absence from the curricula of most professional schools and graduate programs.

These are complex realities that will obviously take even more time to change. What they demand from us is vigilance. We must recognize and define those perspectives that unfairly limit volunteer contributions – and challenge them when they appear. But we must also understand how deep rooted they are, and recognize that our colleagues, even our executives, are not purposely trying to make life hard for us or for volunteers. Rather, they simply do not know better.  I usually describe their lack of support not as malice, but as uneducated neglect.

I believe that e-Volunteerism has been trying to educate since we began publication.  Every article these past 12 years has a common subtext: Volunteers are vital contributors to our many causes and it takes skill to coordinate them effectively.

Have you ever shared an e-Volunteerism article, or even an excerpt, with a colleague or executive? Have you used an article to start a discussion and possibly open the eyes of those who resist volunteer involvement? If you are doing any advanced academic study, do you reference e-Volunteerism articles in your papers so that your professors discover the world of practitioner writing?

Here are two more sets of questions for you – to help us go deeper into this whole issue:
  • Have you ever used any article in e-Volunteerism to “educate up”?  How? Did it work?  What tips do you have for other readers in doing this well?
  • What else can e-Volunteerism do to give you “ammunition” and credibility in your work as in-house educator and advocate for volunteers?

Please take a moment and provide your answers in the comments area at the end of this article.

Volunteer Management as a Profession

The other most referenced topic in our last issue was the slow development of volunteer management as a profession. Several readers were dismayed at the state of our field’s professional associations and the continuing lack of recognition and status of our work. Again, e-Volunteerism has always attempted to highlight this important issue; you can tell by looking in the e-Volunteerism Archives for the long list of articles under “Profession/Field of Volunteer Administration.” 

The fact is, however, that no one bestows professionalism on anyone. It is an identity that is earned once deserved. It begins with one’s self-image, knowledge base and behavior. Martin J Cowling and Jayne Cravens wrote about this in 2007 in “Sabotage Part Two: How Managers of Volunteers Diminish Their Role.” The same year Steve McCurley and I wrote a Points of View essay, “If You Think Education is Expensive Try Ignorance,” in which we proposed a self-development plan for leaders of volunteers.

If anyone has any suggestions for how a journal such as e-Volunteerism can do even more to advance our profession, we would be very open to considering them.  Again, we welcome you to leave your ideas here in the comments area.

We Need More Writers – And Here are Some Possible Topics

Responses to last issue's Points of View also produced several additional possible topics for articles.  Readers asked:

  • What will an economic recovery mean to volunteerism? What will happen if the unemployment rate drops, the housing market booms and people start traveling more frequently?
  • Is micro-volunteering a trend or a mirage? Do volunteers and agencies really get enough benefit from these experiences to justify the amount of time needed to manage these volunteers? Could we spend the same amount of time to recruit and manage volunteers with longer commitments and generate better results?
  • Are the Baby Boomers really changing the way we volunteer and the way we work with them? How many Baby Boomers have actually taken on projects, changed or improved organizations? 
  • Where is family volunteering really happening?  In what kinds of settings and what risk management issues does it raise?
  • What might we be doing to help low-income youth who have no experience in the work world to volunteer? What are the risk management implications and how do we know if we are having an effect on the young people?
  • How can we use demographics to engage volunteers more effectively?
  • “Internships:” What should they be, how have some for-profit businesses abused the practice, and what does that imply for truly volunteer internships?
  • How can “reciprocal” volunteering initiatives – where people receive a reward or service for their volunteering – be encouraged to develop enduring relationships and altruistic motivations?
  • What is the impact of healthcare reform and the changing environment of healthcare on volunteer roles?  (And, of course, this question could be applied to almost any setting or type of work volunteers do.)
  • “Social entrepreneurship:” What is happening, what will happen and how can more traditional volunteer programs capitalize on the trend and remain relevant? If volunteers are doing it all on their own, why should an organization support what we consider to be appropriate volunteer management?

So.  Who out there wants to tackle any of these topics? 

I am not necessarily as concerned with academic or statistical studies as I am about educated experiences.  As always, e-Volunteerism strives to expand the thinking of our field and this includes publishing articles that:

  • Pose good questions – or better questions than we’ve asked before;
  • Share experiences, both successes and failures, with an attempt to analyze what happened and why; or
  • Start with one piece of a study that might later be expanded, such as developing one small or local survey that could be replicated or enlarged.

If anyone reading this is interested in becoming an author, please e-mail If you are willing for your organization to be a study group for someone wanting to do research, e-mail us, too. We mentor new writers and strengthen the presentations of others.  In this way, e-Volunteerism is an activist publication. Our mission is to grow our important field – and we’re all in this together.

To add or view comments

Tue, 10/16/2012
It’s interesting to see the same two issues raised by Volunteering New Zealand's work almost replicating the 'some things never change' observations: 1. The need to educate our bosses and colleagues about the value of volunteers and our work 2. The need for more effective development of our profession. ...and also interesting to consider these haven't budged in over 40 years So what are New Zealand proposing what needs to be in place to address the first issue? - Encouraging all staff in the organisation to get to know and involve the volunteers in functional relationships. - Having an expectation that all staff can explain why the organisation involves volunteers, and the benefits of this. - Offering training and education to all staff about how to effectively work with volunteers. - Recognising that the understanding and practice of volunteering varies across cultural and ethnic groups. Within a medium or large volunteer-involving organisation, each of these lie within the wider HR domain. Developing staff capability is essentially a partnership responsibility between the HR department and line managers. So, as managers of volunteers we first and foremost need to acknowledge we cannot do this on our own, and that strategic volunteer management involves HR thinking and practice. But this is a potentially scary journey for a volunteer manager, who is not trained or experienced in this sort of strategic dialogue. Is there an unspoken concern that if everyone is competent in the management of volunteers, what expertise does the volunteer manager have to offer? Is there a fear that sharing the task of volunteer management undermines the professional standing of the volunteer manager? If so, it could be argued the reason neither of these two issues have budged for over 40 years is that they fight against each other. Taking this one stage further, the only genuine road ahead for volunteer managers in these types of organisations may be one where they are required to relinquish the operational tasks of volunteer management, and discover what type of role may await them in the future. A future that involves different tasks, engaging with different stakeholders and requiring different skillsets..., where personal survival within the organisation is not guaranteed, but also where volunteer management profession may obtain significant recognition. it all feels a bit like the a 'Lord of the Rings' adventure...! In one sense I hope there is a grain of truth in the above analysis. If there is, then it’s within the influence of the volunteer management community to move forward on these issues. In a nutshell, it could be argued that the VM community needs to "let it go, to let it fly". ...and be prepared for whatever role they need to play to keep it flying…

Mon, 12/03/2012
I believe in the importance of these issues - educating leaders and building our profession. I also think the list of possible topics will be fascinating to read about once those people with "educated experiences" do the writing. I was just thinking of another related issue that pertains to how professional volunteer management is understood and supported in organizations and across the greater landscape: the marginalization of the word "volunteer." Are civic engagement, service-learning, community service, unpaid internships, neighboring, pro-bono consulting and corporate social responsibility all superior to volunteerism? I'll answer my own question and say that if someone didn't want them to be, then they wouldn't have invented the terms. After all, who wants to be "just a volunteer?" Sure, these terms have meanings and the distinctions are significant. But, we're marginalizing volunteerism by using them to mean something superior to volunteerism. We have to decide whether we're going to fight the battle and educate people that all these things are types of volunteerism or whether we will continue allowing volunteerism to be seen as the lowest form of service.