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Low-cost, High-impact Professional Development

Low-cost, High-impact Professional Development

Money – or lack of it – always rears its ugly head in discussions of professional development for those in volunteer management. Just as “confidentiality” and “risk management” are smokescreens hiding resistance to volunteers, the financial cost of continuing our education is often an excuse that hides other issues. It doesn’t even seem to matter that many conferences, workshops, professional society memberships and publications on volunteer management topics are offered with barebones budgets and amazingly low registration fees, particularly compared to what our colleagues in other professions expect to pay for their career advancement.

In this article, I offer ideas for professional development that cost nothing or very little. Have you ever thought of a site visit, a book club meeting, convening a think-tank or surfing the Web as potential steps in professional development? I’ll explain why they are exactly that – and more.

And to understand why and how this impacts you, take a moment and ask yourself: Am I in a job or a career? If it’s just a job, then your employer is the source of all training. But if volunteer management is a career – a profession – in which you want to spend many years, then growing your skills becomes your own responsibility. The ideas presented here may help you do just that.

Of course, I realize that I might be preaching to the choir here. Since the beginning, subscribers to e-Volunteerism have generally been people with some experience in volunteer management, who feel committed to this field as a profession, and who – quite frankly – want to be thoughtful about issues like professional development that affect both volunteers and those who lead them. This isn’t simply flattery; it’s observable. Subscribing to a professional journal like this one indicates a desire to get more in-depth information and a willingness to read more than 140 characters in one sitting. Proof? This story has 8,697 characters – without spaces!

Some Notorious Truths About Our Field

Before we begin, let’s also acknowledge a few additional factors that are notoriously true about our field when it comes to professional development:

  • We are reluctant to ask our employers for what we want or need. If you don’t ask for funds to attend a seminar or buy a book, there is no possibility of getting any money. Avoid mental conversations with your executive in which you turn yourself down! Instead, place the request and, even if the answer is no, follow up by asking whether you can budget in advance for this expense for next year.
  • We do not attempt to find the funds for what we need. Betty Stallings is our guru when it comes to urging us to develop the mindset to fundraise successfully, both on behalf of volunteers and our own development. See her e-Volunteerism article on this very subject for some ideas.
  • We do not spend our own money for our own careers. If you can get reimbursed for a workshop registration fee or a book purchase, go for it. But if you are serious about your own advancement, why wouldn’t you be willing to pay for it personally? Unreimbursed professional expenses are even tax-deductible in the United States!

Skills Expansion that Does Not Cost Money

Successful leaders of volunteers are creative when it comes to finding resources for volunteers. Let’s apply this same approach to helping ourselves. Here are some ideas that can provide us with many great learning opportunities requiring our time and attention, but not cash.

Collaborate with Colleagues

Find colleagues who share your interest in learning more about volunteerism and join forces. This is something that any local or state/provincial association of volunteer resources managers can facilitate, whether during meetings or through member directories and other “match making.”

  • Create a list of professional books and articles everyone owns. Borrow from each other, and take turns buying something new.
  • Form a reading circle or book club to discuss what you’ve read. If a whole book is too much reading for you, assign each person to read only one or two chapters and report on the contents to the rest of the reading circle.
  • Notify one another when in-house training on any topic is being offered in one of your organizations, whether for employees or volunteers. Ask whether the sponsoring organization would be willing to allow any outside guests to attend. If not, might the event be audio recorded and shared with at least a specific list of a few colleagues? Reciprocate, of course.
  • Schedule site visits to see first-hand what colleagues are doing. These can be one-to-one or small group visits, but they should be structured.  In fact, develop a visit guide so that each field trip provides consistent and comparable learning (this will help the hosts to prepare as well as the visitors). For example, determine a list of questions that will always be asked/answered or what documents such as handbooks, application forms, and such should be prepared for visitors to take home. 
  • Put each other onto your mailing lists to receive newsletters and other communication that each organization’s volunteers receive.
  • Schedule regular meetings to discuss volunteer-related news items, trends you are seeing or at least hearing about, even great Web sites you’ve found. This could even be incorporated into the beginning or end of every professional meeting.

Use the Web

Have a question on anything? Ask the Web. The Web is a place of abundant free resources on every subject in the world, including volunteer engagement, and much of it is extremely useful.

But much of the smorgasbord of free material is also basic, simplified and incomplete, more of a teaser than training. So before you begin, learn to focus your searches specifically. For example, avoid large umbrella keywords such as “volunteers,” “recruitment,” etc. Instead, try “volunteering by teenagers” or “community service by teenagers;” since some great information may not even use the word volunteer, vary your vocabulary.

You should also use the Web to find information about volunteer management and other professional development topics, such as improving PowerPoint® presentations, how to podcast, creating a budget – whatever your interest.

Set aside an hour a week to surf the Web to learn something new.  For example:

  • Start a running list of intriguing Web sites you learn about in passing (conversations, mentions on television, citations in articles) and give yourself the chance to sample them.
  • Use the Along the Web article in each issue of e-Volunteerism as a starting point. And tap into any of the links in the Energize, Inc. Online Volunteer Management Resource Library.
  • Do “industrial spying” as I described in a 2006 Hot Topic, “Online Spying Can Improve Your Volunteer Management Skills.”
  • YouTube is a goldmine. You can find “how-to” videos on almost everything, including how to use computer software, social media platforms and more. And there are literally thousands of YouTube videos that contain the word “volunteer” in the title – just be prepared to ignore tons of material on volunteer firefighting! I also highly recommend the fascinating “In Plain English” videos on social media created by Common Craft.
  • Add a volunteer-focused blog to your weekly exploration (start with the list here) and bookmark those you like or subscribe to their RSS feed. Blogs are where you are most likely to learn the latest news and trends, and those written by individuals (rather than official promotion blogs from organizations) often provide provocative commentary and opinion.  The great thing about blogs is that you can reply! In fact, you should. True learning takes place not in reading, but in discussing, or at least thinking critically about, a topic.

Unapologetic plug: We’d love more reader responses to all the articles here in e-Volunteerism. It’s a great way to add to everyone’s knowledge and also to get supplementary information from the authors, all of whom truly want to interact with you.

If you can find the hour a week to go to Web sites, but not the time to search which sites to visit, recruit a cyber deputy volunteer who enjoys the hunt and ask her or him to find valuable online resources for you.

Odds and Ends

  • When you go to a conference that offers a choice of breakout sessions, purposely go to something that seems “unrelated” to what you are doing now. Why? Because it’s a mistake to only focus on the demands of your current job if you are trying to develop your career. First, the workshop may end up being far more useful right away than you thought. Second, the session might make you aware of a trend or new technique that ends up being relevant a very short time later. Most important, learning about something outside your current sphere of work broadens your scope and vision.
  • Volunteer to do something for your agency that goes against “type.” Offer to join a staff committee that is not immediately connected to volunteering (of course, almost everything in your organization could be supported by volunteer input, so this is a chance to educate others). If you serve on a budget committee, special event task force, grounds maintenance oversight team, whatever, you will be introduced to new management issues and strategies that might, in fact, help you to work more effectively with volunteers.
  • Recruit volunteers to advise you. There is nothing self-serving or selfish about seeking volunteers who sign on to teach you something, mentor you in new activities, and more.  Your organization benefits when volunteer services operates effectively; helping you to increase effectiveness is therefore worthwhile.  If you really are concerned, bring on the expert volunteers to rotate through the staff, training several people individually or as a small group.  What might you learn?  Conversational Spanish or Cambodian. Better public speaking techniques. How to write a press release that gets noticed. If you can’t keep the list going, you’re not awake!
  • Convene periodic trends and think tanks, just because. Once or twice a year, convene a variety of volunteers (the more diverse, the better), paid staff and outside colleagues for the purpose of answering this question: What trends have started that affect us personally and organizationally? Use their observations to plan what you need to learn about next.
  • Think ahead. Allocate yourself a learning budget. In volunteerism, even $100 (or the equivalent in your country’s currency) a year can allow you to subscribe to a journal, buy a book and even go to a local workshop. The point is that you might truly not have any money today, but can’t you plan for having some in the months to come?

I hope this Points of View has helped convince you – or reinforced the idea – that professional development can be a matter of will and making time, not just spending money. How do you keep learning? Please share your own ideas in responses to this article.

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