The Wall of Executive Indifference

By Susan J. Ellis

Cancelled again. For the second year in a row, a workshop offered by La Salle University's Nonprofit Management Center on the "Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success," with me as the guest faculty member, garnered just one registrant. Karen Simmons, the NMC's excellent director, expressed the frustration that no one with a national reputation is ever valued at home. But I told her that this seminar was probably doomed from the start. Sort of "it's the SUBJECT, stupid!"

For over twenty years, it has been like pulling teeth to get agency administrators to attend sessions about volunteerism designed for them. No matter how we phrase the invitation, emphasize the executive-level topics, or ply them with elegant breakfasts, attendance is either low, represented by lower-level managers "sent" as substitutes, or the seminars have to be cancelled.

I have been battling indifference to the subject of volunteers by top administrators for most of my career. My book, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success, directly addresses this subject and, in one way or another, it often surfaces in my articles, columns and even previous hot topics. And yet I still am caught up short with disappointment when the same prejudice confronts me once again. No matter how long I've been in this field, I simply cannot understand the inability (or unwillingness) of otherwise smart, creative leaders to embrace the enormous potential of volunteer involvement.

Agency executives understand that they have a role to play in paid personnel matters, even if there is a human resources department. Or that raising money is a vital executive function shared by the development department. So why is it such a mental stretch to see that volunteers--often greater in number by several degrees of magnitude than employees--require top-level attention as well as the best volunteer program manager?

I submit that this issue is "Public Enemy Number One" for the volunteer field. Individually and collectively, we must find ways to crack the wall of indifference we face. Maybe it begins by recognizing, and then responding to, examples of the problem. Rarely is the absence of the subject of volunteers truly intentional, but it can often be observed. Consider:

  • Other than The NonProfit Times, for which I have written the bi-monthly column called "On Volunteers" for nine years, no other national publication aimed at nonprofit agency administrators has a regular feature on any aspect of working with volunteers. The Chronicle of Philanthropy used to include a table of contents category for articles for and about volunteers, but dropped it a while ago. They still include articles featuring volunteer-related news and models , but their main interest is fundraising. The same is true for the publication Contributions. While I have not seen every publication produced by every state association of nonprofit organizations, those that I have read cover the subject on a hit-or-miss basis. Periodicals focused on public administration and government follow suit.
  • The academic nonprofit management and philanthropy centers that have evolved over the past decade generally include "volunteerism" in their mission statement, but neglect the topic in their course offerings. A review of registration brochures for both credit and non-credit courses reveals the usual emphasis on financial giving without acknowledgement of the giving of time and talents. It is rare to see even mention of "volunteers" as a bulleted subtopic in sessions about personnel management, community resources, collaboration, fundraising, or networking.
  • A similar review of the agendas for professional conferences and meetings aimed at executives (national, state or local) comes up empty on the subject of volunteers. - Foundations and government granting agencies do not usually require a volunteer component to projects, nor do they ask for volunteer involvement data in reporting on the success of work they have funded. The common wisdom is that it is very difficult to raise money to cover the salary of a volunteer program manager, despite the argument of "leveraging" such a cost to produce services of far greater value.

We are talking about the need for a major change in attitude. If executives had the vision to see the power of volunteer involvement, they would welcome information and training to make the most of this resource. I am asking for some collective thinking on this issue. How do we:

  • help those executives who truly understand the issues to be effective advocates to their peers?
  • demonstrate the continuing "newsworthiness" of volunteering to the media that covers nonprofit and public administration issues?
  • develop the capacity of Volunteer Centers and DOVIAs to be speakers and sources of information beyond the internal volunteer field?

I will, naturally, continue to tilt at this ever-present windmill. But I honestly don't know what new ideas to suggest. What do you think? If you've succeeded in educating executives in your community, how did you do it? Is there a way to use the Internet to bypass usual obstacles such as conference planning committees or publication editors?

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