Hot Topics

Since 1977, Susan J. Ellis and other authors have written a monthly "Hot Topic" essay on an issue or trend in the volunteer world that is percolating at that point in time, inviting comments and debate from site visitors. This is a full archive of all our Hot Topics, many of which remain relevant today -- and it's never too late to join in the discussion by responding at the bottom of each Hot Topic's page!


This month guest writer Betty B. Stallings challenges top leaders of volunteer-involving organizations to start the year 2018 right by reading the following excerpt from her book Leading the Way to Successful Volunteer Involvement: Practical Tools for Busy Executives about how to develop their organization's own statement of philosophy on volunteer engagement!


This month guest writer Jayne Cravens challenges the belief that risk and fear should prohibit organizations from involving volunteers.  Do volunteers really differ from paid staff when it comes to risk management? How can organizations build safety into volunteer engagement?

The theme of International Volunteer Managers Day 2017 (November 5) is "Be the Voice!" What does this call to action mean and how can each of us speak out effectively on behalf of our profession and the volunteers we lead? Consider what you "say" in actions as well as words.

The principles and daily tasks of effective volunteer engagement are universal, no matter the setting. Yet, those of us who publish or plan conferences for the field find it a hard sell to attract an audience as diverse as the field itself. Find inspiration outside the familiar.

Susan came to the 2017 National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership last month with cautious hope and left with enthusiastic optimism. Read her reflections and consider our shared responsibility for moving the profession of volunteer management forward again.

On July 4th, Americans celebrate the concept of independence. We should recognize that the founders  were also defining co-dependence or inter-dependence as the basis for the "common good" of their wished-for democracy. Both citizen volunteering and taxes are implied in this social contract.

Do you only go to conferences if your employer covers the costs? Do you value your own professional development enough to pay for it yourself? Once you're at an event, are you doing everything you can to make it priceless for your learning and enjoyment? Susan offers a lot of tips to broaden your perspective.

Are we giving recognition to all the people who are actually volunteers? To some who are not? We cannot assume the word volunteer means the same thing to everyone – and have to communicate effectively exactly what we mean when we use it.

Who knew volunteer management was so complicated? We did. First we need to learn the basics, but it doesn't stop there. We need to keep up to date and challenged. Think you don't have the time? Find (or make) the time.

Where did 40 years go? Susan reflects on Energize's milestone anniversary by sharing her observations on what challenges to the volunteer field have never changed, which have gotten worse, and which have gotten better. Do you agree?

Susan responds to The NonProfit Times' article, "Nonprofit Workplace Challenges Predicted for 2017," pointing out how volunteers can and should be integrated into any organization’s strategic planning to react to change.

How do you react when your executive requests something that you think doesn't make sense or may actually be negative for volunteers? Take pride in your professional knowledge and do your job: speak up for best practices.


This has been a year in which turmoil, violence, and uncertainty have affected too many parts of the world, often reversing social progress and opening deep divisions among people. Take heart: when things seem dark and cloudy, volunteers can be the bolts of lightning that can turn things around.   

Have you heard of #GivingTuesday? It’s a global fundraising event that connects to the pre-holiday shopping season. How can we link volunteer recruitment to this campaign? And what does it teach us about the fine art of “piggybacking” as a recruitment tool that we can use in many different ways?

Although critical, raising money is not the only way for an organization to support its work. Are you, as leader of volunteer resources, included in planning for fundraising so you can suggest possible non-cash avenues to obtain some of what's needed?

Volunteers are not simply “unpaid help” to assist employees. The differences between employees and volunteers are major and strategic. Susan compares and contrasts both sets of workers in an attempt to show how treating them as the same except for level of pay is deceptive and limiting.

Most volunteer-involving organizations serve “people in need” through a charity model that often works, but can also be paternalistic and disempowering.  Leaders of volunteers can change the paradigm by seeing clients as people with talents as well as needs – and their own desire to partner in finding solutions.

It is critical to record and report information about volunteer service, yet organizations rarely see what is significant about volunteers. Get some tips from the model of July 4th fireworks and capture attention with great reports!

Susan explores the relationship between individual organizations and “connector” agencies such as volunteer centers created to increase community-wide volunteering.  They have mutual goals, but different perspectives. How do we assure partnership and avoid competition?

We in the U. S. are deep into one of the strangest presidential election process in memory. Susan offers a collection of recent volunteer-centered political news stories. Some are bizarre, some are moving, and all are revealing of the kaleidoscope of citizen action focused on social change.

Susan tells the true story of how a photographer friend's talents are being wasted by an appealing volunteer project...and why this has important implications for designing all kinds of volunteer work.

Susan discusses the amazing opportunities that VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) platforms offer for effective volunteer management. You may already use Skype to interview prospective volunteers or to interact with remote volunteers. What about as a method of bringing expertise and training to your organization?

"Behold the turtle, who makes progress only when sticking its neck out." Yet many leaders of volunteers are bent on avoiding risk as if it is always a bad or dangerous thing. Susan offers some ways to strategize for necessary change.

A new year is an excellent time to open discussion on strategic planning for volunteer involvement. What are your organization’s goals for what volunteers will accomplish this year? The consequences of unclear goals are far-reaching. 


The theme for IVMDay last month reinforced the image of volunteers as “Superheroes.” And yes, volunteers do share a lot of characteristics with brave champions. But you know what? We think it’s really the reverse. Superheroes share a lot of characteristics with volunteers

Paid staff plan new projects by applying their expertise to the intellectual challenges of the task. But it’s clients who will feel the impact of their decisions. By the time service users give feedback, it may be too late (or expensive) to make corrections. Volunteers, who bring a wide range of perspectives as members of the public, are great at pilot testing options much earlier in the process. And they will love doing so!

A high school reunion made me think about how often we miss opportunities to stay connected to volunteers who leave their positions with us. The fundraising office “cultivates” even the smallest money donor patiently over time. So why do we sever ties completely with former volunteers who may still care a lot about our work?

Smartphones have opened a whole world of options for taking photographs and videos to benefit volunteer engagement—at no cost and by many contributors. Are you making use of all the possibilities, both practical and fun?

We are responsible for the effective engagement of volunteers but most often do not have control over what happens once volunteers are placed into roles supervised by others. So leaders of volunteers are accountable, but with limited power. Susan asks: When do you have the authority to act if you feel something needs to be done differently? What are your options?

We say that our goal is teamwork among volunteers and paid staff, but just as the game is about to start, we withhold some of the things volunteers need to help the team to victory.  Do you give volunteers access to the same resources employees take for granted?

Volunteers are commonly recruited into "friendship" roles to meet one-to-one with a client regularly over time. But do the volunteer, the client, and the agency all see this match in the same way? What happens when the volunteer acts like a friend instead of doing what a paid "service provider" might do?

Some issues recur over and over, posing the question, “Why are so many executives clueless about volunteer involvement?” Susan shares three new examples of this problem and identifies their insidious common denominators.  

Too many associations of volunteer resources managers are completely invisible on the Web – effectively dead because they cannot be found through even a careful search. An effective Web presence is key to building new membership.

Do you think that volunteers (of any kind) would be interested in an online forum community, based on their  shared identity as volunteers? Dan Berman, founder of, and Susan debate this question and invite you to weigh in – and to visit his beta site.

Susan reacts to a newspaper article, “As older Minnesota volunteers leave, who will replace them?” Are we asking the right or wrong questions in situations like this one?

Updating our Web site gave Susan the chance to assess trends, treasures, and challenges of the Internet resources that have evolved for our field since 1997. Do you agree with her observations?


Seemingly at the speed of light, 2014 is rapidly coming to an end. Before you consider making any resolutions for the new year, use December as an opportunity to reflect on the past 12 months...

What are the consequences on volunteers and everyone else when the job of volunteer resources manager is eliminated or drastically changed?

There are potential volunteers we rarely attract because we do not see their talents, feel they are  out of our reach, or are unsure how to approach them. So we never ask them...and we all lose.

We all want to learn new recruitment techniques to keep up with emerging trends, but it's important it is to remember the basics, too – the things that have been proven to work over time. 

The age-old debate about defining "volunteer" is that we seek clear, definitive answers, when there are far too many nuances for that. 

Innovative volunteer roles or volunteer management techniques sound wonderful when presented. Let's do a reality check on how many of these new ideas are tried and assimilated into daily agency operations?

The current emphasis of funders on “innovating” or “reimagining” programs implies some assumptions that deserve to be questioned. Is something new always something better? Where do volunteers fit into this all?

National Volunteer Week in the U.S. was “sold” this year by Points of Light to Advil®, making the rest of us non-consenting participants in a commercial advertising strategy.

April has rolled around again, bringing National Volunteer Week to North America (and to other countries over the next months).

A true story of informal volunteering raises important questions: Can volunteer resources managers ever capture and build on the ways that some people naturally help others?

We know that volunteers are not "free," but we do not always acknowledge what it costs them to give their time or who else may be aiding the volunteer with other financial support.

The Web enabled a new way to volunteer online and 20 years later virtual volunteering has become a critical part of our field. Take a poll to compare your experience to others.


Keep the efforts of volunteers past visible through a simple photography project and celebrate the transition from the old to new year in a different way.

November 5th is IVMDay. Most professions do not expect or need a special day of recognition - why do we? Because it's an opportunity to get others to pay attention to what it takes to coordinate volunteers effectively.

Never assume people know you are looking for volunteers. Make sure that you are really issuing an invitation to become a volunteer to the people in greatest proximity to you. Susan explains how... 

Volunteer resources managers (VRMs) are constantly being told what we can learn from professionals in personnel or human resources (HR). Maybe it's time we tell HR what they can learn from us

Most of us support the observation that volunteering builds resumes, provides career exploration, and demonstrates each volunteer's abilities, but can we make the case - as several recent research studies try to do - that volunteering directly affects employability?

All too often, volunteers are assigned to staff at the lowest rungs of an organization's hierarchy while senior and middle managers never partner with them at all. Let's change the status quo.

How can you challenge and educate volunteers who themselves perpetuate negative thinking about volunteering? 

Does your organization have a volunteer involvement strategy? What does one look like? Why is it worth becoming a priority for senior managers?

In 1980 and 1990, Energize produced a mini-poster with the dramatic title of "The Seven Deadly Sins of Directing Volunteers."  Susan considers whether the "sins" have changed now in 2013 - and asks for your help in generating a list for today.

Everyone is buzzing about social media, hoping to "go viral" and grab the attention of prospective new volunteers. But the medium is not the message. Susan examines how the basic principles of volunteer recruitment still apply in our electronic age.

A new book introduces the concept of knowledge philanthropists: time donors "who volunteer primarily with their head, by contributing what theyknow." Organizations can vastly increase their capacity by engaging volunteers with any and all professional skills. 

"How many volunteer hours are too much?" Are there any legitimate reasons to limit the time volunteers may give or is it a self-defeating practice? Would you cap a financial donation? Sort out the layers of complexity in this issue. 


Are volunteers acknowledged in meaningful ways in your organization's annual reports and other public documents? Use the holiday season to celebrate the gifts volunteers provide all year long and educate everyone with surprising and valuable information.

An indescribable hurricane and a fierce presidential election in the same week! These two very different situations are both eliciting an outpouring of volunteer time and effort. Susan analyzes the implications for calmer times from the perspective of volunteer leadership.

One of the enduring mysteries of the volunteer management field is how often those who lead volunteer efforts do not build a team of volunteers to help them in their important work. Do you?

"Why" is a three-letter word that can pack more punch than most four-letter words! Leaders of volunteers tend to avoid confrontation, but posing a sensible question - which anyone can do - is a means of taking action in a different way. Learn the power of "why?"

Nonprofits are governed by boards of directors comprised mainly of volunteers and, as the Penn State scandal proves, they are not always effective. Why are volunteer resource managers so rarely asked to help the board to function?

It seems that many corporations and national organizations want to "wear" volunteerism...for only a moment. Vague new initiatives launch with glitz, but ultimately have very little impact on any of the important community work that needs to be done. 

It's common to use a "volunteer satisfaction survey" as ostensible evidence that things are going well. Do such surveys reveal anything meaningful about the value of volunteer contributions? What might tell us more?

Guest commentator Rob Jackson draws three critical points from recent  social media data that have direct relevance to leaders of volunteers - and gives tips for responding.  Are you keeping up with how fast things are changing?

Energize gets asked a lot of questions about volunteers that would never be posed in relation to paid staff. Susan shares some examples of illogic, overreaction, and unthinking policies that hinder volunteer success.

Energize is celebrating its 35th birthday! What has changed since 1977 in how we do business, and also in the volunteer world? On the surface, a lot. But maybe the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

In the U.S., presidential candidates with widely differing views each attract thousands of volunteers. We see election volunteering as a political act but any type of volunteering is inherently "political." What does this mean for your organization?

What would your organization look like if it practiced everything we preach about creative, welcoming, and effective volunteer management? We have to picture the results of our efforts to be motivated to do the work necessary. 


United Nations Volunteers is set to issue its State of the World's Volunteering Report. In this spirit of celebration and reflection, Susan looks back at all that has happened professionally in our field - things we have done or were done to us - and asks for your retrospectives, too.

The majority of people who lead volunteer involvement do so only part-time, showing a serious disconnect between an organization's desire to engage volunteers and an understanding of how much expertise and time are needed to ensure success. 

Susan offers 8 essential approaches to generate greater support from top management - using the tools leaders of volunteers already have in more powerful ways.

Some truly wonderful and provocative blogs have emerged recently. Here are some by authors who are willing - in fact, determined - to address philosophy, ethics, and the "big questions" facing the volunteer field. 

Inexplicably, the subject of volunteer involvement is still far from a priority in most organizations. Susan highlights succinct key points to use as "sound bites" or "elevator speeches" in advocacy for our work. Share yours.

Many want a universally-accepted credential to "professionalize" volunteer management. The problem is that we are in danger of settling for a one-size-fits-all accreditation that is too narrow in scope and much too low-level in status.

In the face of serious budget cuts facing the U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service, guest contributor Paula Beugen wonders if the Corporation needs a serious makeover no matter the budget. 

We live in a world of short attention spans. How can we reconcile the long-term demands of most causes with the "what's-new-today?" push? How do we continue to recruit the volunteers we need for the long haul?

Volunteer recognition is a powerful tool for leaders of volunteers that remains largely underutilized. Susan offers some new perspectives on saying thank you in strategic ways.

Is Mother Nature or the economy getting you down? Could you use a good laugh? Energize runs a contest to find volunteer-related humor.

Around the world, too many professional associations of volunteer resource managers are struggling. Whether we work globally or locally, virtually or face-to-face, we will make progress only if we perceive associating as power.

With more financial hardships and budget cuts ahead of us, what are the rights and responsibilities of citizens - public servants and taxpayer volunteers - in ensuring services to the community?


The UN's IYV+10 has raised the perpetual question of "What exactly is - or is not -volunteering?" How someone defines the core word of our field often has strong impact on some critical, practical matters. 

If everything in the world is changing, volunteering cannot stay the same. But some volunteers prefer the status quo. Susan looks at the causes of resistance and suggests ways to introduce change that volunteers will own.

Just because a corporation dangles money in front of us, do we have to jump? Glitzy media campaigns misdirect well-meaning volunteers and only add more work for agencies, diverting effort from what's genuinely important. 

We've seen the evolution of ever more powerful Internet tools. The trouble is that we are drowning in data. What does this mean for our own professional development and for volunteer involvement?

Volunteer groups are increasingly being detoured by demands to carry liability insurance. Is this just another way of saying "no" to volunteer initiative? The real question is: "What is the risk of not doing something?"

Money donors and time donors are closely intertwined - and people move in and out of both roles over a lifetime. Remind executives that we need to cultivate all supporters for the long-term.

The American "Reimagining Service" initiative is pushing the concept that corporate human resources professionals are the key to building the capacity of nonprofits to engage volunteers. Really?

Learn about a new (maybe) type of service: the self-directed volunteer. Is it "organized neighborliness" or something really different? What's the role of social media in mobilizing self-directed volunteers?

"If it's worth doing, it's worth paying for it." "You couldn't pay someone to do this." How can we believe both that money equals worth and that money in some ways taints the receiver? How do such preconceptions affect us?

AmeriCorps (and also Senior Corps) members are now being deployed as volunteer coordinators in organizations that do not have staff to lead volunteer involvement. Susan examines the potential and concerns of this initiative.

Conspicuous by their absence in most volunteer corps are the people the organization serves. But we should be considering them as a source of talent, too. Givers as well as recipients.

It is limiting to focus on the similarity of volunteers and employees. Think of what we might accomplish if volunteers had free rein to make the most of what distinguishes them from a paid work force.


Can an organization turn to volunteers to fill gaps when budgets are cut and employees laid off? Economic crisis is a teachable moment, with the potential to educate everyone about smart, motivating engagement of volunteers.

We've just ended the Entertainment Industry Foundation's attempt to mention volunteering in all types of media. What's important is not which popular shows carried the volunteering message or even how well. What happened? 

Are we missing the boat by not directing volunteers into work that is of greatest value to the users of our services right  now.  Isn't it important to ask volunteers to do whatever is of highest priority?

How can we integrate discussion of everyone's own volunteering into daily life in a natural, even "taken for granted" way?  With the hoopla about single days of service, how do we shine a light on ongoing volunteering?

Service-learning has evolved as a world unto itself apart from the field of volunteer management, despite the connecting link of the young people engaged in service. How can we bridge the divide?

"A Billion + Change" is encouraging corporations to send "highly-skilled" employee volunteers out to help nonprofits. Susan identifies 6 assumptions that need to be challenged to assure pro bono success.

Im today's time-deprived world, it's easy to see why single "days of service" have become popular. But this trend has proliferated to the point of absurdity, with ever-shorter time commitments. 

Guest contirbutor Paula Beugen examines what the new Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act says (or doesn't) about volunteer management.

Staff can stop any creative idea involving volunteers by raising concern over confidentiality, risk, or other issue solemnly pronounced as protecting clients.  And too often it works.  We must stand our ground.  

Susan shares some true stories that highlight the gap between ever-expanding needs for volunteers and resistance from organizations who do not actually want this help. How welcoming is your setting? 

U.S. President Barack Obama is calling for "a new era of responsibility." So in this is a unique moment, Susan's "Open Letter" presents concrete requests from the perspective of volunteer management.

In the spirit of the new year, Susan considers what 2009 might hold in store for volunteering. What are your predictions and wishes?


December tends to focus on charity to poor families. The challenge for volunteer resource managers is how to redirect the traditional one-way giving model into year-round community building. 

The global economic situation affects us all as private individuals and within community sectors.  So, how will a recession affect volunteering? Susan offers some perspective;you share your hopes, fears, and predictions.

An event in New York City on September 11-12, 2008, called ServiceNation, invited both presidential candidates to speak. But Susan wonders if lumping all forms of "service" together confuses rather than helps debate and action.

There is endless talk about making sure volunteers do not displace paid staff. But what about the opposite issue? When and how is it legitimate to place employees into roles traditionally held by volunteers? 

1.7 million Chinese have become Olympic volunteers, but the press coverage treats this not as quality volunteer management, but as suspect "government control." Pay attention to what is being said and draw your own conclusions.

The IRS has just acknowledged the soaring cost of gas by raising the tax deduction for mileage to 58.5 cents per mile - but the rate for driving by volunteers remains at 14 cents, as it has for 10 years.  

The cost of gasoline is rising at a staggering rate.  There hasn't been much public discussion yet about the potential of gasoline prices to disrupt critical volunteer services, but is there a silver lining for volunteering here?

Is your volunteer program appropriately funded? Have you requested something and been told "we don't have the money"? But that just means no money right now. Make the case for allocating more money to support volunteers.

Democratic presidential candidate Obama calls for tax credits for students who do "public service" to help nonprofits. When will it be recognized that volunteering is not simply something done in the nonprofit sector?

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has just created a cabinet-level office of volunteerism. What might this mean for other states?  What is the potential of this step?

Susan makes the case that the key to increased impact – and to resolving the ever-present tension between employees and volunteers – is intentionally recruiting volunteers who are as unlike the paid work force as possible.

How do we feel (honestly) when we answer "I'm in volunteer management" when asked what we do?  Do we dread watching people’s eyes glaze over? Here are some unexpected and powerful ways to explain our profession. 


The San Fransisco Bay oil tanker spill shows that we need to teach civil emergency response organizers that turning every potential volunteer away without assessing what s/he is offering to do is a mistake on many levels.

Not-for-profit boards of directors are taught to separate their main role in “governance” from the paid staff’s role in “management.”  Is this still a viable delineation or is it time to re-think the status quo?

Recruiting volunteers to contribute their time and effort to your organization puts you in the middle of an implied promise. When new people agree to volunteer, they initially commit because they believe you. Should they?

We spend a lot of time debating what is “volunteering.” But what about situations where the word volunteer is almost never applied, yet the activity truly is unpaid service – and even costs people money?

The merger between the Points of Light Foundation (POLF) and Hands On Network (HON) clearly has potential for positive impact on our field but is also worrisome. What should we expect and do now?

After consulting and training in five countries this year, Susan comments on her observations of global volunteerism.

As of this month, we are launching a monthly podcast of these Hot Topics – which either pleases you or further confounds you about the relentlessly changing world of technology.

All-volunteer associations constantly seek new members. But it's equally – if not more – important to find ways to revitalize the involvement of inactive members still on the rolls. 

Have you found it easier to recruit a volunteer to do frontline, hands-on work than to accept a leadership position on a board of directors, advisory council, or key committee? This universal concern is also seen in DOVIAs.

March 2007 brings Energize's 30th birthday! All the clichés about “where did the time go?” definitely spring to mind, as does Susan's thought: “Boy, I must have been very young to have had the audacity to start this adventure!” 

There are new volunteer vacation or "voluntourism" projects springing up all over. Why? What's good and bad about the concept? How can volunteer resources managers tap into this trend to further our ongoing goals?

Is it important for volunteer resources managers to do some sort of volunteering themselves, practicing what we preach? Susan wonders if making time to volunteer is a professional development activity.


What exactly is the connection between ourselves as leaders of volunteers and the volunteers we lead?  How does our close relationship with volunteers affect both our professional practices and how we are viewed by others?

Why do advocates of "civic engagement" and "social entrepreneurship" think these are different from "volunteering"? Do we perpetuate the notion that volunteers are helpers, not innovators? Let's rethink how we recruit.

Middle managers can be an asset or an obstacle to effective volunteer engagement. Do they support it comfortably and well? Are they given any training – or even an introduction to – the principles of volunteer management?

 What’s the best title for the person who is designated as the leader of volunteers?  Even more important, is there a name/term on which we can all agree as a label for our profession?  

There have been remarkably few elementary or high school curriculum materials to 1) educate teachers about volunteering, and 2) help them teach their students about the historical and current role of citizen involvement.

Every recruiter of volunteers hears “I don’t have time” as the most often expressed reason to refuse an invitation to participate in a project. What can we do about this except wring our hands?

Despite a few official volunteer statistics, we really do not have many facts. If we want to encourage researchers to do serious data collection about our field, then we need to articulate some better questions to ask. 

Ever think that industrial espionage would be recommended as a best practice management tool?  Keep reading!

In part 2 of her response to the dissolution of AVA, Susan explains why it’s important for a professional association to start with (and usually maintain) a single-nation focus rather than an international one. 

The Association for Volunteer Administration (AVA) is no more. Susan muses on what we can learn from the demise of AVA to guide us in doing things better in the future and exhorts colleagues to take action. 

Legal and financial counselors too often say "no" to what we want to do with volunteers. And they do not expect to be challenged. As advocates for volunteer engagement, we need to remember that we, too, have expertise to offer.  

The new edition of By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers is done. Understanding the roots and traditions of volunteering is key to the potential of the future. What can we learn from the past in any country?


Whether it was tsunamis, hurricanes, or earthquakes, the demand for rescue and relief efforts in 2005 was unparalleled - with a ripple effect on volunteer recruitment and fundraising for “everyday,” local organization needs.

Do you have volunteers working with you? If VPMs become role models for how to design roles for volunteers and how to work with them successfully, we’d do more to bring dubious staff around than just talking the talk.

It is common to cast volunteering in a solemn, even spiritual light. But we do volunteers (and ourselves as leaders of volunteers) a disservice by focusing only on their halos and never the devilish twinkle in their eyes!

Despite all the mismanagement and confusion in the rescue and relief effort after Hurricane Katrina, the consistently bright spots of news reporting are what people are doing to help one another. 

Susan reflects: The more things change, the more they stay the same. While there have been exciting developments in volunteerism, many challenges are still looming windmills to fight.

Sports team charity projects and new cause-related marketing service events reward participants with all sorts of perks, chances to win cars, and more. How might this affect our own success in recruiting volunteers? 

Every volunteer program deals to some degree with seasonal leaves of absence, whether for summer or winter. If you’re located in a resort area, you may be even more affected. These are facts of life, so what can we do about it?

Does anyone actually like traditional volunteer recognition events? They can be stultifying: dull speeches, poor food, boring table talk. To add insult to injury, they can be expensive. More important, they miss the point.

Despite endless lip service to the subject, very few nonprofits or government agencies engage in substantive collaboration with other organizations. It’s too hard and it’s too threatening. Are volunteers the answer?

In recruitment, it's easy to repeat the same old messages to the same old places in the same old ways (with the same or diminishing results). Think like a marketing expert and generate excitement about your organization.

What is it about volunteering that causes such stereotypical and prejudiced thinking, despite decades of serious attempts by our field to alter the public’s perceptions? Why don't people see the best rather than the worst?

What is percolating in our field as this new year of 2005 starts? Susan observes some "trends in the making" and asks colleagues for their predictions.


There are some sterling examples of strong professional networks in our field, but they are sadly few and far between. Most are struggling. Why? Which came first: weak professional associations or a weak profession?

Are interns the same as volunteers? Many organizations and individuals vastly prefer what they think of as interns to what they consider as volunteers. Why does the label "intern" change perceptions?

Susan reflects on her recent vacation in China and what she observed there about volunteering that has implications for the rest of us.

The concept of employers stimulating and supporting community service by their employees has been accepted by our field almost as gospel. But should we also have some concerns about how workplace volunteering is evolving?

Do you watch the national and world news and shake your head? Do you wonder if global and regional developments will end up affecting the volunteer program you run? You should.

Despite research showing that people who volunteer are more likely to also give cash than uninvolved people, the development office and the volunteer resources office continue to operate in distinctly separate spheres.

 Volunteering is commonly - and erroneously - seen as synonymous with nonprofits. In fact, enormous numbers of volunteers are active in public agencies that are part of government at local, state, or national levels. 

The intersection between government and volunteers made the news in all sorts of ways during April. What might the general public think about community service after reading or hearing these sorts of stories? 

Guest author Steve McCurley offers an alternative proposal to the Corporation for National and Community Service's initiative to  deploy AmeriCorps build volunteer management infrastructure.

The new study,Volunteer Management Capacity in America's Charities and Congregations, is probably the strongest argument ever seen in the U.S. for the value of investment in volunteer management.

Politicians (everywhere in the world) make speeches about how valuable citizen involvement is, although ironically, much of what volunteers really get worked up about is what government is not doing for the public good! 

The global Conference on Volunteering and Information and Communication Technologies acknowledged the role of volunteers in developing and maintaining the Web, and how they are working to close the "digital divide" from the poor.


One of the most frustrating aspects of change in organizations is that too often newcomers initiate change simply out of preference without asking an important question first: Why and how did we end up where we are now?

The complete absence of discussion of volunteers in most professional academic curricula means many of our colleagues are unprepared to team with volunteers successfully. What can we do about it?

The quest for “tell me what’s standard for all volunteers” emerges endlessly, but there are few universal answers. Start by examining the factors of your organization and determining what is best for you, not others.

What is it about our field that everyone thinks they know how to do or how to interpret it? Why would anyone assume that working with volunteers is simply a matter of instinct, common sense, and being nice?

Orienting and training volunteers are key elements of successful volunteer involvement. But if we focus only on training volunteers, we miss the opportunity to facilitate education for our entire organization. 

The volunteer world has been given a gift – unexpected but extraordinary. The gift is the Internet. Some of us have eagerly ripped open the wrapping and have been playing (quite seriously) with all the possibilities of this present.

What are the issues when for-profit businesses offer money to nonprofits but also expect volunteers to do the work of the fundraising project? Where are the lines between exploitation and a win-win mutual exchange?

Recently there has been volunteering by characters on popular T.V. shows, usually presented badly. Susan would love to see volunteering handled like the “product placement” so important to commercial advertisers.

The war in Iraq makes Susan  ruminate on conflict, politics, protest, and volunteering -- and how volunteering always moves front and center in times of military conflict.

What is it about volunteer leadership that makes us unwilling to take what we’ve got and flaunt it?

It is common for those in nonprofit settings to be critical of the social and environmental practices of business corporations. But do we ever assess our own degree of social responsibility and the global impact of our spending?

As we start a new year, Susan gets "interviewed" about her purpose and goals for writing these monthly Hot Topic essays.


At the risk of sounding like the Grinch, there is little to smile about this holiday season when it comes to the state of Volunteer Centers operated as internal programs of United Ways.

What are the roles of our field’s various professional societies and resource organizations, both in relation to each other and in terms of local, state/provincial, or national levels of operation? Susan examines the options.

Susan examines one of the recurring issues in our field: the disconnect between those who are paid to be coordinators of volunteers and those who, as volunteers themselves, lead other volunteers. 

Guest writer Rob Jackson comments on formal recognition of volunteers and the idea of a national medal to be awarded to all volunteers in Australia after a set number of years' service, regardless of the volunteer's role.

Why don't the national headquarters of major volunteer-involving organizations have volunteers working side-by-side with paid staff in running programs? What is the reason for this blind spot and lack of visible role modeling?

Susan revisits the last 63 Hot Topics and considers which remain "hot" even now.

Reactions to criticism - and to any forthright opinion expressed publicly in our field - seem to fall into four categories of response, from "why don't they like us?" to "let's fight back." 

It's Spring in the Northern hemisphere and time for letting in fresh air, closet cleaning, fix-up projects, and other winter's-over activities. Why not apply the same mindset to volunteer management?

Susan takes a close look at the evolution of the concept of "senior citizen" and contradictory volunteering messages to people ranging in age from 50 to 100. Are we "seniors" for half our lives? 

Susan reflects on how volunteer management requires a special world view within a culture so focused on economic gain. Read her version of "Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned from Working with Volunteers."

After 27 years of true leadership in our field, the Minnesota Office of Citizenship and Volunteer Services has been summarily closed by Governor Jesse Ventura. How can this happen and what do the mixed messages mean? 

2001 started with mixed reviews for the celebration of the International Year of Volunteers and ended with the efforts of volunteers responding to the terror of September 11th as a sign of undiminished community strength. 


Despite new studies of volunteering and giving, Susan points out how little we really know about what matters. To get useful information about the scope and impact of volunteering, we need to ask the right questions of the right sources.

Now more than ever, we need to focus on root causes and prevention of new problems. Are we engaging enough volunteers, enough of the time, in advocacy and activism along with direct services?

It's been an overwhelming two weeks since the terrorist attacks in the US on the 11th of September. Energency response volunteers are seen as heroes. What can we in volunteer management do in such a crisis?

No matter how long I work in this field, I simply will never understand why so few of our attempts at educating decision-makers seem to stick. Maybe funders have to add their clout to their money.

Too often we look for external "standards" against which a specific agency can measure the effectiveness of its volunteer effort. Any comparisons need to be made much closer to home. 

What will the Bush Administration's "faith-based initiative" mean for volunteering in the United States? Can we predict its impact or--more importantly--make the initiative work for us?

Agencies often tap volunteers to become employees. While this shows that volunteers are seen as a talent pool of equal merit to employees, the practice also raises some concerns and potential pitfalls.

Perhaps the most unique thing about working with volunteers is our perspective on cash. We don't need as much of it as other departments do. This financial freedom allows us a different approach to the subject of funding.

April brings National Volunteer Week in the USA and, as I feel every year, I wonder if anyone cares. Certainly just about no one outside of our field has ever heard of National Volunteer Week. Why? 

Energize is a for-profit company-serving a field in which financial "profit" is never the point, so some question our motives. Let's challenge thinking that draws lines in the sand between people who are "pure" and "impure."

We all would agree that "youth service" is important, but what does this term really mean? What's the definition of "youth" in differnet countries? Is there always a reason to segregate volunteers by age?

The phrase “streams of service” conveys the image of various forms of service, all starting from different sources, eventually combining into a mighty river. Or do we just have puddles? IYV provides a prism throught which to see our field.


Ivan Scheier's new book is about dreams that die while others live and prosper. And he shares how we can be both a dreamer or a “Dream-Catcher”--a person who nurtures the dream-chaser towards accomplishing the dream.

Volunteers are often called "unskilled workers," but usually the speaker means “differently skilled” as compared to the credentials of the majority of the paid staff in that setting. We need to explain what volunteers bring to the workplace.

Energize proposes a project for the International Year of Volunteers that will generate excitement and result in meaningful activity, is do-able by any organization, and can be used as a recognition idea at any time. 

Guest writer Linda Graff points out: "When an organization says let's do a cost-benefit analysis on volunteer involvement, it seems a reasonable thing to do...[but] we don't know how to measure the value of volunteering." Provocative and important reading.

In all the discussion of the impact of Internet technology on volunteer management, one very important opportunity is often overlooked: making use of your organization's own Web site to foster volunteering.

Susan reflects on experiences at a national conference that revealed unexpected generation gaps: older and younger participants each claiming to be the “most” committed to civic engagement.

The point of this Hot Topic is not to trash banquets, but to question the fundamental rationale of what we are trying to do when we thank volunteers --  and suggest ways to make any recognition activity more worthwhile (even a banquet!).

Several major initiatives are promoting family volunteering or trying to integrate community service into every school grade. But do volunteer-involving agencies have the desire or skills to welcome children and teens as volunteers?

Susan cleans out her bottom desk drawer to find hundreds of old conference name badges...and recognizes an unaddressed hot topic! Let's be honest and open about these devilish plastic items. (No foolin'.)

It is over two years since the United Nations declared 2001 as International Year of Volunteers. While this fact has been broadly publicized, many are rightfully disappointed in what is NOT happening. 

As more formerly nonprofit services become for-profit businesses, the question of whether or not volunteers should continue to give unpaid time in such settings deserves attention. The answer is not always clear.

Happy New Year and new millennium! Susan uses this milestone to envision her hopes for the future of professional development in our field, along with some move-it-forward resolutions.


Let’s use the start of the new century as an opportunity to to ask some genuinely hard questions about volunteer involvement in our organizations--what have we really accomplished and where do we want to go?

Here's a caution to all to examine the assumptions behind the “conclusions” reached by the new Independent Sector  “Giving and Volunteering” in the U.S. study--or any other attempt to quantify volunteer activity.

The volunteer field's perspective was absent from the White House Conference on Philanthropy (guess they only meant money), as well as from discussions about “civic engagement,” “civil society,” and other community themes. Why?

Susan shares her list of major trends in the field right now. Do you see the same things, in the same way? Differently? And, even more important, what other issues do you see surfacing for the volunteer world--both good and bad?

It has long been impossible to get senior management to attend sessions about volunteerism designed for them. No matter that the invitation promises executive-level topics or includes an elegant breakfast, they don't "get" why they should come.

PricewaterhouseCoopers' "Performance Measurement Study of Americas Promises Commitments" is breathtaking in its arrogance, trumpeting out activity data as if doing something is equivalent to accomplishing something. 

Guest writer Andy Fryar from Australia observes that effective time management is the key not only to successfully blend the needs of volunteers with those of the organization, but also to avoid burning out volunteer program managers.

A major reason employees are hesitant to accept high-skill volunteers is a lack of creativity in creating assignments for these volunteers to accomplish. Traditional approaches to volunteer work design almost inevitably lead to conflict.

What is the importance of volunteering by poor people, particularly those we consider “disenfranchised”? We in volunteer leadership have to refocus our energies on involving the people we “serve” as part of their own solution.

This Hot Topic is about money.  Two big financial questions seem to surface all the time, so let's examine them: What should a director of volunteers be paid? Should volunteers be given money as an incentive?

Why is there such a prevelant self-fulfilling prophecy of expecting, and therefore tolerating, mediocre performance by volunteers? This is based on the bad assumption that, by definition, volunteers don’t measure up to paid staff. 

If the whole world is changing, how can volunteerism stay the same? Of course it can’t. But are we prepared to make fundamental changes as well as cosmetic ones?


Why are so many academic research studies on some variation on the theme of what motivates people to volunteer? They reflect researcher inexperience with real-life volunteers and an inability to frame more complex questions deserving of study.

The Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. is, at its core, a story of gratitude for volunteering as well as for abundance. Why do we so often miss the mark with modern volunteer recognition? We need new ways to say thanks.  

Guest writer Sarah Jane Rehnborg wonders if we sell ourselves short by not clarifying our language and by lumping all manners and forms of service within one broad and reasonably useless classification of "volunteer."

Susan admits to dissatisfaction at the repetitive format of professional conferences that have a "sameness" that is increasingly feeling dull. What other options are there for producing great learning events? 

Leaders of volunteers around the globe are making conscious efforts to connect with one another and we need to foster such communication more actively. Looking ahead to the UN's International Year of Volunteers 2001, we can take advantage of this pending event to create exchanges among the leaders of volunteer efforts -- beyond IYV. [This Hot Topic remained active through August 1998 to permit more responses from global colleagues.]  

States were mandated to create a  a "Commission on Community Service" to administer federal funds and several merged their Commissions with previously-established State Offices on Volunteerism. Caution!

In the U.S. and in most other countries, there is an untapped pool of potential volunteers: foreign nationals (without work permits) living away from home for various reasons and with time to volunteer.

A year after the Presidents' Summit, Susan evaluates developments from the volunteerism perspective. Some local activities have been wonderful, but the promised mobilization to help youth has not yet materialized.

We say we value professional networking, so why does it seem to be so hard to get leaders of volunteers to connect? Susan poses some nagging questions -- what do YOU think?

Despite the common wisdom that volunteers are "community representatives" to and from the organization, how often does your organization tap them for insight about the community? 

Susan proposes twelve professional New Year's resolutions. If once a month we each take some action on these small but vital things, the field of volunteerism will be strengthened over the next twelve months.


The December holiday season brings countless charitable projects filled with the spirit of giving. But can't some of the annual holiday cheer be rechanneled or rescheduled to have a much greater effect on those in need for the long run?

What does the growing global interest in volunteering mean to each of us individually and to the profession of volunteer administration as a whole? 

The new era of welfare reform provides a significant challenge to companies as employers and as philanthropists.

The sex-typing of volunteering as feminine--and the disproportionate number of women in director of volunteer positions--needs to be acknowledged and addressed. This is a complex issue and manifests itself in numerous ways.

Susan responds to colleague Sarah Elliston's observation that, "...volunteers are like the third branch of the organization and should be considered as such. I wonder if we are doing a disservice to be suggesting they are like paid staff."

While volunteer management has been evolving over the past decades, some questions are still unanswered, particularly whether or not we can identify our work as a "profession."

This month's Hot Topic is often discussed in whispers and in private, and rarely confronted openly: labor union resistance to volunteer involvement. It's time to examine this, even at the risk of controversy and strong feelings.

The Presidents' Summit focused on volunteering for youth development but selected noncontroversial activities. To deploy volunteer energy towards a better life for all young people, Susan proposes five additional goals for volunteering. What do you think?

The Presidential Summit for America's Future wants huge commitments of new volunteering, without talking about the cost and extra resources needed to work with volunteers -- or whether agencies even want them. Plus, we need money AND volunteers.

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