Note from Susan: Happy October to all. Because I’ve been on the road for most of September, this seemed like a good time to post a hot topic written by someone else. Sarah Jane Rehnborg, the Director of the Center for Volunteerism and Community Engagement at the University of Texas in Austin, posted the following comments to CyberVPM. I found them provocative and therefore of value as a "hot" topic. Thank you, Sarah Jane for allowing us to consider these thoughts.
Are we helping ourselves by continually trying to group everything that happens in our field under the label "volunteer"? We are selling 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."
Case in point. In 1990, the National Research Council published a book, Volunteers in Public Education. While it is an interesting piece of literature, I doubt very much that we would find a comparable publication entitled "Salaried Employees in Public Education." IF one did find such a publication that was of any value, it would likely be a book of graphs and charts and salary comparisons, and perhaps information about certification requirements and education. A book such as "Salaried Employees in Education" would not exist because it would be of very limited value. It would not begin to ferret out the issues confronted by education nor issues on student achievement (the basic purpose for these employees). So if there is something about the work that salaried people do that requires thoughtful and discrete analysis, shouldn’t the same be true of the work of volunteers?
We spend a great deal of time helping those who would engage a volunteer design the best type of service opportunity to meet real needs. So, if we carve out volunteer assignments and organize thoughtfully, why don’t we analyze and report with equal thought and analysis? It would seem to me that we are doing ourselves, our work and our field a large disservice by being so cavalier in our analysis and reporting. Simply put, a volunteer is not a volunteer is not a volunteer! Aspects of operating systems may be highly similar (how to manage volunteers), but not the output or the work (what the people we manage accomplish). After all if we don't value and understand the nuances, why should anyone else?
One publication that has taken a stab at teasing out the work of the service community is the Annenberg Institute’s Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change report. Although they do use the "V" word, they do so sparingly. Rather they identify 7 forms of service performed by communities in support of schools. They report: "Taken together, however, the following seven types describe the broad focuses of public engagement today: parent participation, community and parent organizing, standards development and implementation, strategic planning/community visioning, public conversation and deliberation, governance and shared-decision making, legislation and policy development" (p. 23). They go on to provide examples of each form of service and share what is being learned as a result of this. (You can see for yourself at http://annenberginstitute.org/publications/reasons-hope-voices-change-report-annenberg-institute-public-engagement-public-educatio)
When I have spoken with school principals and administrators about community engagement, explore the range of engagement and then describe the skills required to engage the community effectively, they simply cannot get enough information. This is, from our perspective, volunteer management, but we haven't taken the time to articulate our cause in the language that is valued by the "consuming" audience--an audience, I might add, that often regards volunteers as fluff, but considers the community as critical.
So as to the future. We need to stop talking to ourselves and find the people who believe that they have found or "reinvented" volunteering. Perhaps they do have something to offer us and we need to learn the music that other choirs sing. And if we really believe that what we do is important, we had darn well better spend some time really thinking about what we are about so that we can articulate the true value of the effort, not the pious platitudes that we believe make us important!
Okay, it's your turn to comment. Here's a starter question:
How can we begin to report the nature of the work (and achievements of) volunteers instead of the simplistic and probably meaningless "head count" of how many nonsalaried workers we’ve recruited?
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