Is Volunteer Management Really a Profession?

By Susan J. Ellis

I've been in the field of volunteer administration for over 25 years and have seen many changes--most are positive ones. But some questions are still unanswered, particularly whether or not we can identify our work as a "profession."

Too many of us still "fall" into volunteer management positions, either as a stepping stone towards another career goal or by the unexpected addition of the tasks of volunteer program development to existing job descriptions. Some of us then discover we really love this work and have an affinity for it. We wind up making a long-term commitment to volunteerism. But at any given time, our field is dominated by people who view volunteer management as a job and not as a career--certainly not as an identity. They will move on (and often up) as soon as a better job opens to them.

So what makes a line of work a "profession"? The literature about professions in general provides some guidelines. All professions have:

  • a clear educational path into the practice.
  • an agreed upon vocabulary and set of principles.
  • expectations of those both inside and outside the profession as to standards of competence.

I'd add that when one is a "professional," membership in that profession is an identity that moves with one regardless of the settings in which one works at any time. So a lawyer is a lawyer whether employed in a law firm or as legal counsel in a hospital. A social worker is a social worker whether in direct client service or in administration. A teacher is a teacher in school and at a summer camp.

Is a volunteer services director a volunteer services director in her or his own mind regardless of job held? regardless of setting? Do you affiliate more with health care, justice, or cultural arts than with volunteerism? Is your goal to move up the ladder in your setting even if it removes you from working with volunteers--or do you envision yourself in a bigger and better volunteer management position regardless of the agency?

This issue takes on very real dimensions for the support mechanisms common to professions:

1. Professional Societies
In other professions individuals expect--as a matter of course--to affiliate with their professional society at every level--local, regional, national, international. And the cost of annual dues--often high by our standards--is a cost of being in the profession--paid by the individual if necessary. In volunteerism, we struggle to "convince" colleagues that joining a DOVIA, state association, or national association is "worth the money." If you need to ask "how will this help me in my job?," you don't get it.

2. Collective Action
Professionals recognize issues confronting all practitioners and understand the value of concerted action. Through professional societies and special interest groups, they position themselves as experts and tackle legislators, funders, the media, and anyone in a position to make decisions necessary to their field. No other profession would have allowed something like the Presidents Summit to ignore its central role without a fight or even a murmur! Clout is won, not bestowed.

3. Literature
Professionals expect to engage in continuing education. Education puts them into the profession and they take pride in keeping up with current issues. Books and periodicals are bought (often using a home address and personal funds) because maintaining a reference library is considered important. Also, professionals want to gain peer recognition and to share their own ideas by being published. In volunteerism, too few people purchase books and even fewer write them.

4. Education
All around the country, colleges and universities have tried to offer coursework on volunteer management. With very few exceptions, courses for academic credit have failed for lack of enrollment. Only continuing education courses have an audience but rarely for subjects other than "nuts and bolts." Someone in a job wants to know "how to"; someone in a profession also wants to know "why."

No one will buy you professional status. You either have it or you don't. But it is different from competence on the job. It means affiliation with a field and a willingness to work together to build that field.

So...what are we? Do you think volunteer management is a profession? Why or why not? Does it matter?

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Crystal Hickerson, Clinton Township, USA

I would love it Susan if you re-visited this subject. You wrote the original article in 1997 - now 20 years later how would you answer the topic question?

Submitted on
Cara Thenot, Publications and Social Media Director, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia/PA, USA

Hello Crystal. I am replying for Susan since she is taking a break from writing, editing, and consulting due to a health setback.  Of course, I cannot speak for Susan, but just this year she wrote the following Hot Topic about what volunteer resources manager must do to grow as professionals: Feel free to email me at, if you'd like to discuss more.