Needed: A Multi-level Approach to Credentialing Volunteer Management

By Susan J. Ellis

Volunteer management has been an “emerging profession” ever since I’ve been in the field – which is now 40 years. Those who want to further “professionalization” are concerned about finding a way to gain recognition from employers and colleagues that successful volunteer engagement requires special knowledge and competence. They want a universally-accepted “credential.” On the surface, that seems reasonable, but we can’t settle for one-size-fits-all.

During the Australasian Retreat on Advanced Volunteer Management in New Zealand last month, the topic of professionalization surfaced several times because Volunteering New Zealand is working on the Managers of Volunteers Project, “a national initiative promoting the recognition and professional development of Managers of Volunteers.” This, of course, is only the newest of many efforts at codifying the work of those who lead volunteer efforts, whatever the position is called (see the sidebar for several of the most established programs in several countries).

Several Retreat attendees had just finished taking the examination required by the Council on Certification in Volunteer Management (CCVA) and shared that they felt that some of the questions asked were about unimportant matters; a week later, one of these colleagues learned that she had failed the test; in response, another colleague shared that she had failed it twice in the past.

At some point during my visit Down Under, I had something of an epiphany that crystallized what has been troubling me for a long time about credentialing: we are in great danger of institutionalizing leadership of volunteers both within a limited definition and at its present low-level status. If we test or approve only the narrow basics of our work, we lose the opportunity to reward those already at a much higher level and, worse, send the wrong message about what our profession is really about.

What Is vs. What Can Be

First we need to be honest. While there are many visionary and creative leaders of volunteers to be found all over, the majority of people in this job today do it part-time and half-heartedly. They focus on learning how to do the necessary tasks of volunteer management without any interest in why, philosophy, social context, or organizational development.

Unfortunately, too few directors of volunteer involvement are on their organization’s executive management team, expected to participate in system-wide strategizing. Both practitioners and CEOs perceive the role to be a low-rung stepping stone out of which the best people will be promoted into more responsible positions.

One result of this range of attitudes in the field is that our professional associations struggle to accommodate both those who want to pursue the work as a career and those who want to leave it as soon as possible. This also means the basics need to be taught repeatedly to keep up with turnover in volunteer management jobs. This next spills over into workshops, conferences, academic courses, and writing for the field. In order to get participants, registrants, students, and readers, sponsoring groups must appeal to a common denominator, often the lowest one. Anything labeled as “advanced” is a hard sell if it seems to include discussions that are not practical or immediately applicable.

One thing we have achieved as a field over the last four decades is some agreement on the basic skills needed to be successful in coordinating volunteers. We have articulated and can teach how to design volunteer work, recruit, interview, screen, orient, train, supervise, keep records on, and thank unpaid workers. But please note that this list – as familiar as it may be – is entry-level expertise. It is, as I said, a list of the basic skills for coordinating volunteers, the hands-on activities of daily work running a volunteer program.

It looks as if Australia offers some way to earn higher levels of accreditation or diplomas, but most of the “professional” standards being applied today are about doing not leading. They institutionalize volunteer management as little more than running an unpaid temporary labor force available to those who run the agency as a whole.

What’s Missing

Where is our vision of what our work stands for, should be, or can be when done with full organizational support? Don’t we want to make earning a credential a symbol of top achievement in outside-the-box leadership? Don’t we want to prove that our role is vital to volunteers, the organizations they serve, and society as a whole?

Our credentialing programs must lead the way in clarifying language in order to highlight the breadth and scope of volunteerism. For example:

  • We must never talk about volunteers as only being part of nonprofit organizations, as they are active as well in government/public agencies, for-profit settings, political action, and unincorporated groups. Similarly, we need to include the arts, environmentalism, activism, and all other causes way beyond the traditional “default” of human services and healthcare settings.
  • Are we striving to be skilled in administration, management, or leadership (just to name three common terms)? Do we run volunteer programs, resources, services, engagement, or ???? And is there a difference among all these terms?
  • What about all the many forms of voluntary service that too often feel no connection to the vocabulary of “volunteering”? The CVA designation should imply ability to work with boards of directors, student interns, stipended national service participants, court-ordered workers, self-help groups, pro bono advisors, etc., etc. Does it now?
  • The model of volunteers working alongside paid staff in an agency is only one form of community engagement. The personnel office functions that succeed there are too limited for leadership of all-volunteer associations, professional societies, faith communities, unincorporated neighborhood groups, and online communities. Someone accredited in volunteer management ought to have at least some understanding of how to mobilize volunteers when the formal human resources approach isn’t appropriate.

It is rare to see any mention of this enormous range of volunteerism in existing accreditation literature or exams. Unless this diversity (and sometimes controversy) is front and center, we risk continuously narrowing volunteer management only to the tiny part of our field that uses the words volunteer, work, program, nonprofit, and human services. Unfortunately, the new 500+ page “textbook” from CCVA falls into many of the traps above, partially because – again, in order to achieve external acceptance – academics were sought as writers and they simply didn’t have any vision of today and tomorrow, only the paltry research of yesterday. Yet it is the study of that flawed textbook that is being tested in the exam my Kiwi colleague “failed.”

When will we distinguish, or at least explain, the difference and the connections between the work we do and that of such fields as fundraising and development, association management, service-learning, special events organizing, human resources, community organizing, and more?

Finally, at what point do we see our future inexorably linked to the way the world perceives and treats volunteers themselves? Advocacy for volunteering ought to be a requirement for certification, with candidates demonstrating the value they themselves put on participatory democracy and how they work to remove barriers placed continually in front of people who want to give their time to important causes.

The Ultimate Question

At what level of authority do we feel leaders of volunteers should be placed within an organization and is that one of the criteria for earning a credential? Or do we allow someone eight levels below the executive team and the status/salary of a secretary to become certified in exactly the same way as the person who is second in command and instrumental in making organizational decisions?

We must push for and reward an updated career ladder in volunteer management. Let’s identify today’s credentials as entry-level and define the promotional possibilities for everyone to aim at them (employers, too!).

This may mean having to develop accreditation in ways different from other professions. We may possibly have to do this without the academic research so often used to validate best practice – at least until university faculty catch up to where our field is today. I do not have the answer to how to do this yet, but individualized peer review is the key (which CCVA does do well as part of the portfolio process in addition to the exam).

If we are unwilling to fight for our acceptance at our rightful level, we will never be a “profession.” We will instead continue down the path of putting seals of approval on competent worker bees. Ultimately we will turn away the best and the brightest who have found new and different ways to unleash the potential of volunteers. Those colleagues won’t pass the tests or fit the molds we are institutionalizing and they won’t care.

We have to aim much, much higher.

  • What are your feelings about certification, standards, qualifications, etc. for volunteer management?
  • Have you earned such a credential and how has it helped you? Have you tried and failed to earn a credential and what did that mean to you?
  • If you have no interest in credentialing, why not?
  • What would make certification relevant to you – and meaningful to the future of our profession?

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