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The Challenges in Educating Senior Managers

The Challenges in Educating Senior Managers

For as long as either of us can remember, a central issue in our field has been lack of true support for volunteers (and of our professional roles) by the executives of our organizations. Oh, there’s been lots of lip service with lavish praise along the lines of “volunteers are the heart of our services.” But the saccharine compliments rarely come with strategic planning to assure that volunteers have the greatest impact possible and rarely present with enough resources to provide all the necessary tools and training.

It’s not as if no one has tried to “educate up.” Susan’s book, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Successful Volunteer Involvement, was first published in 1996 and is now in its 3rd edition, selling all over the world and translated into Japanese. Due to the demand for a version specific to the UK, Rob has just finished writing From the Top Down’s  British edition. Betty Stallings’ report of her survey of executives, 12 Key Actions of Volunteer Program Champions, led to another book, Leading the Way to Successful Volunteer Involvement: Practical Tools for Busy Executives. And great blog posts on the subject abound, such as Sue Jones’ "Thoughtful Thursday" essay last year on ivo, “Thoughtful Thursday - Got that? Leading, Educating, Moving and Shaking.” The list could go on and on.

So if we have repeatedly laid out the arguments, what is stopping them from being heard? In this Points of View, we’ll first share our individual perspectives on this question and then conclude with some proposals for action. As always, we invite you to contribute to the discussion.

Rob’s Thoughts

For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on the UK version of From the Top Down. It’s been great to re-visit this classic book and refresh it for the UK context. But we’ve struggled to find anyone to publish it.

You see, From the Top Down is not really a volunteer resource management book. It’s a book aimed at Chief Executives (CEOs) and Executive Directors (EDs) about effective strategies to make volunteer involvement really meaningful. It does not deal with the how-to’s of recruiting and coordinating volunteers, but rather with senior-level issues such as policy development, budgeting, risk, legal issues, and the like. While several organizations want to sell the finished book, nobody on my side of the pond seems to have an appetite for publishing a book like this aimed at that audience.

I find this fascinating. I see parallels between our struggle to get people to take the publication to market and the age-old challenge many volunteer resource managers face in getting the volunteer programme to be taken seriously at the top table. I have been trying to identify why we have problems influencing up. Here are a few of my conclusions.

Volunteer management is not seen as an issue for senior management consideration.

Volunteers? They’re the nice-to-haves, not the ones doing essential work. Volunteers make the tea and stuff envelopes (or whatever the modern equivalent is). The hard graft is done by the paid staff. That’s one reason why we want paid employees and why we even consider paying board members – because everyone knows that as soon as you pay someone they magically become more competent.

That’s the typical view from your average ED or CEO, and in truth, it’s a commonly held view across the ranks of many paid staff. We have to fight against the prejudice that volunteering is a marginal activity rather than something essential to the way a voluntary sector organisation should do business.

Almost no professional training includes the philosophy or skills of involving volunteers.

Our executives are often highly educated, and these days likely to have graduate credentials in nonprofit or public sector management. Yet they spend no time in the classroom studying volunteerism; perhaps they study a little bit about boards of directors, but rarely about how roles can be developed to attract a wealth of volunteered expertise. The newly-minted social worker, nurse, teacher, and even clergy confronts volunteers every day in the real world without the preparation necessary. And  by the time the novice works his or her way up the ranks to senior management, chances are that no continuing professional education workshops about volunteers have been offered either.

Put another way, volunteers simply do not make it onto the agenda of top planners and policy makers.

Volunteer Resource Managers (VRMs) struggle to influence up as part of their role.

Back in 2001, I wrote an article for this very journal which sought to understand the roles volunteer resource managers have, do, and could play within different organisational contexts. In that article, I drew the distinction between the management of volunteers and the management of volunteer programmes. I argued that the latter role, being more strategic in focus, necessitated much more of a need to influence up as well as down and across within an agency than those roles where the principle focus was in managing volunteers or supporting staff to do that.

As I made clear in the article:

In case alarm bells are ringing in the reader's head, let me clarify that I am not making these distinctions to cause a schism in the field of volunteer management. Certainly, in many smaller organisations, one person fulfils both these roles within the same job, while in larger organisations the two roles above are held distinct from each other.

What I am advocating is an understanding of the differing skills, competencies and abilities required in the modern volunteer management environment.

If we are heads down in the day-to-day work of leading and managing volunteers – especially if we do it alongside other duties or if we’re an unpaid volunteer resource manager – then it’s incredibly hard to find the time to make the arguments upwards about the importance of volunteering and good volunteer management within our organisations. Further, if we are not skilled in influencing, negotiating, and public speaking, or feel intimidated by people further up the agency food chain, we may not be the best advocates to make the arguments. Sometimes influencing within our own agency is the hardest task and executives might be more open to hearing the arguments put across by someone they respect outside of the ‘home’ office.

Executive level managers are scared of being found out.

My current theory for why it’s so hard to get senior managers to take volunteering seriously is that they don’t want to admit to their ignorance of the subject. In fact, I think they may be downright afraid of being found deficient in a key area in which any nonprofit leader ought to have at least some competence.

Of course, there are some executives who understand. We all too often forget that the majority of nonprofits are small with no paid staff and little income. After them come the huge number who have just one employee (the ED or CEO) and are sustained by volunteer support alone. The leaders of these organisations get the importance of volunteering but also may not understand the specialty of volunteer management. As their services grow, employees are added for all sorts of roles but rarely to concentrate on continued volunteer engagement.

The most concern lies with the bigger agencies – where senior managers often have no appreciation of the importance and significance of their volunteer support, especially if those senior managers have come from other sectors and so have no knowledge of volunteers. This is where people are ignorant (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) and scared that someone well below them in the agency hierarchy understands something they should understand themselves. After all, chances are any nonprofit management course they attended never covered volunteering or did so in so brief a manner that it barely scratched the surface of what the student should know to be equipped to lead an effective organisation in the modern world.

The fear of not understanding volunteering is compounded by how rarely top management actually interact with frontline volunteers. The larger the organization, the less likely informal contact is. And if the executive mainly sees volunteers at the annual recognition event, who attends those? Probably the most “traditional” older, female volunteers. Do executives want to do have a lot of conversation with their grandmothers?

Susan’s Thoughts

All of Rob’s points resonate with me. Most readers know that I have been speaking and conducting training for over 35 years around the world. In all this time, I have only had four scheduled events cancelled for insufficient enrollment. In every one of these cases, the cancelled event was promoted as “a seminar for agency executives” on their role in successful volunteer involvement.

When such events do succeed in garnering participants, the first thing I do is poll the group for who is actually the top executive in their organization. Guess what? I can’t remember an audience that had more than 10 percent at the top level, and then those senior people were usually with very small agencies. Often a CEO registers and then, at the last minute, declines to attend and sends someone much lower in rank or sends the volunteer resources manager (defeating the purpose of the training).

I always think that if we had named this event “HOW TO FIND A MILLION DOLLARS for your organization,” we would have had to rent the sports stadium for enough space! Somehow there is a disconnect at the top levels of management between volunteers and anything of true value (beyond hearts and hands).

My list of reflections includes:

Executives respond mainly to their peers and volunteers are not perceived as their peers.

Rob noted above that volunteer tesources managers may actually be ineffective in-house advocates because their skill set is not recognized at all. So when executives are invited to something by, say, an association of volunteer managers or the local volunteer center, the event is simply not considered meant for them. What could such a body really say of interest? And if there is any implication that the event is for training, how do you think that is received? I always made sure my top-level programs were called “seminars” or “think tanks” or “forums.”

The take-away from this observation is the importance of finding “champions,” to use Betty Stallings’ phrase. The key is to get a CEO, who is really supportive of volunteers, to send out the invitation as a peer-to-peer suggestion or partnering with a co-sponsor group that already has the respect of senior managers in that profession or setting.

The fundraising establishment is often oblivious.

We all know that “money talks.” And that fundraising staff have higher status than volunteer management staff. Even small financial donations are acknowledged and the givers “cultivated” in the hopes of eventually getting bigger checks. Volunteers are time donors, yet the financial value of their efforts are rarely calculated nor acknowledged. Also ignored is the reality that volunteer contributions are worth far more than the mere wage replacement cost formulas so often favored (see Tony Goodrow’s excellent e-Volunteerism article, “Calculating the ROI of Your Volunteer Program – It’s Time to Turn Things Upside Down,” for more on this).

Fundraising staff know that they need wealthy board members to make personal appeals to wealthy peers and that they need many worker bee volunteers to run special events. But that does not translate into an understanding of the complexity of volunteer management nor the connection between the giving of time and the giving of money. Here’s the litmus test: if the fundraising office has full access to the list of volunteers for their giving appeals, does the volunteer services office have full access to the list of money donors to also invite them (or their families) to become volunteers?

Until both the fundraising staff and top executives understand that volunteers are part of the continuum of support every organization needs – and that the invitation to volunteer should be made to all supporters as part of their journey with an agency – we will not have their attention.

Academics ask the wrong questions.

Research is used to prove information to skeptics, and studies that support particular viewpoints are quoted as “proof” of those viewpoints. Until the last few years, the only source of consistently excellent studies of important volunteering questions has been the Institute for Volunteering Research in the UK. More recently, we have seen a welcome increase in scholarly articles on volunteer themes, but these studies rarely enlist practitioners as partners in formulating the hypotheses or the research design. Never is “practitioner literature” quoted (or read), although the same academic articles are quoted over and over, even if they are lacking in substance. So we have very little useful “ammunition” from academia to demonstrate to executives statistically many of the things we see in our daily work with volunteers.

Funders don’t connect the dots.

It always amazes me that large grants are given to organizations to implement projects that propose involving volunteers, yet the budgets to support the grant request show no expenses for such engagement. We so often hear that there is “no funding” for the position of volunteer resources manager. My response? Has anyone actually asked for that money? Foundations and government programs need to insist that proposals include a reasonable infrastructure to support the planned increase in volunteers – and then they should require reports that assess whether or not the support helped or hindered the actual results (and not just in terms of how many volunteers were recruited, which is the wrong but common measure of success funders use for volunteering). Right now executives “get away” with under-resourcing volunteer involvement because no funding body holds them accountable for doing it properly.

What Can We Do?

All the books and guidance in the world, helpful as they undoubtedly are, are no substitute for action to be taken. It is down to us as individual VRMs to take that action. Both of us believe the adage that it is easier to apologize than to ask permission. So we want to give you some ideas for simple actions you can take to start putting volunteerism on the agenda for your CEO. We also want to encourage you to share your ideas, your experience, and your learning.

Here are some of our ideas:

  • Go where the executives feel comfortable and will believe the speakers.
    This means offering to conduct sessions at conferences that senior managers attend already – or write articles for publications they respect. Invite volunteers to co-present or co-write the materials, especially volunteers with credentials that will impress executives: volunteers who are successful in their “day jobs,” volunteers who hold office in respected civic organizations, etc.
  • Perhaps a key role for support/infrastructure bodies is to bring together groups of CEOs to work on these issues together without VRMs being anywhere near such gatherings, creating a ‘safe space’ for discussing the issues senior managers should focus on regarding volunteerism. But, of course, then invite VRMs in to provide a reality check.
  • Ask for quarterly “summits” with the fundraising staff (and marketing/public relations staff) to compare lists of money and time donors, coordinate public speaking calendars, and brainstorm outreach ideas.
  • With your local network of volunteer managers, propose a research project to the nearest university and see if you can develop a study that will reveal the importance of volunteer management.
  • Write a quarterly highlights document that summarizes the impact volunteers have made over the period and distribute it to all department heads and senior managers (noting that this impact was done through work in all units of the organization). Ask to discuss the highlights with your ED.
  • Once a year, ask for time on the agenda of the board of directors (themselves volunteers, of course) to brief them on the state of volunteering at your organization.

Your Turn

So, over to you. Tell us what you have done. What have you learned about “educating up?” We hope that the comments generated by this Points of View can become an ongoing resource to help colleagues across the globe rise to this key challenge we all face. 

To add or view comments

Fri, 07/18/2014
If you want your volunteer program to be held in high esteem and get support from leadership, create volunteer asssignments that add value to the organization. Develop volunteer roles that support the mission of your organization, that are innovative and effective. Give the volunteers an opportunity to let their best qualities shine. When a volunteer program is producing results...tell that "volunteer impact" story in a every way you can.

Tue, 07/22/2014
An encouraging read via the link below. A tale of the Ramblers Association in the UK. Clearly, this is a CEO that gets the value of volunteering. Quite probably a volunteer themselves in another 'walk of life'... Also, it was interesting to see the challenge the CEO set our writer. It wasn't to evidence impact of volunteering, but to just develop it. Having a CEO that 'gets it', frees up the VM team to get on with delivering, and loosens the onerous burden of proving the contribution that this brings. Naturally this process will follow, as the CEO seeks to justify the investment in volunteering to the Board. However, a quick glance at the trustees and senior management team profiles page, shows a bunch of other people that get volunteering. I get the sense the horse is leading the cart is this situation... Conversely, a drive to evidence impact to convince senior management of the value of volunteering, feels like the horse pushing the cart along with its nose! The potential lessons are for VM to develop dialogue with HR and the wider SMT to encourage senior management job specifications that have 'personal experience of volunteering', and associated competencies listed as essential requirements. ...and then to extend this requirement to all paid staff job specifications(!)

Fri, 10/03/2014
Susan, we always appreciate your highlighting the importance and challenges of EDs championing volunteer engagement. We now have great quotes from the EDs whose organizations participated in VIP, our volunteer engagement capacity building program, and who attended our *required* session for EDs. They are now greater champions of volunteerism, yay. We've posted some of their quotes: