Trend Watch: Are You Ready?

By Susan J. Ellis

As many of you know, for several years now I've written an introduction for our print Volunteer Energy Resource Catalog that outlines trends I see percolating in late summer of each year. Our great Webmaster, Kristin, just suggested: "Why not use those reflections as the September Hot Topic?" And so we have! The point is not to save me writing time (though that's not a bad reason, either). It's because I'm genuinely interested in your assessment of the trends of the day. Do you see the same things, in the same way, as I do? What do you see differently? And, even more important, what other issues do you see surfacing for the volunteer world--both good and bad?

Excerpted from the 1999-2000 "Volunteer Energy Resource Catalog": Trend Watch: Are You Ready?

Below, as every year, I offer you my perspective on potentially important trends and their implications for the volunteer field. All come with the usual caveat that my crystal ball is not necessarily more prophetic than yours. Im just willing to go out on a limb and put my opinions in print (and you'll have the opportunity to do the same at the end of my list!)

1. International Year of Volunteers 2001 (IYV2001):
Last year I highlighted the globalization of our field and our wonderful international network of colleagues continues to expand. IVY2001 is one of the ways we can connect further. But YV2001 is just around the corner and, as of the date of this new catalog, most of us still do not know what is planned. We all have a stake in the success of this Year, and we will all regret it if we blow this opportunity. United Nations Volunteers (UNV), the UN agency charged with the administration of the celebration, wants every country to develop its own way of observing IYV2001. While this is fine, we still need some international connecting link to bring the global volunteer community together for one year--getting past internal and international politics. The good news is that we dont have to wait for anyone. IYV2001 is a real thing and each of us can make as much of it as we choose (read more about it at Every Volunteer Center, local DOVIA or state association, academic philanthropy program, and individual volunteer program manager can use IYV as leverage for visibility and recognition.

2. Short-term or Episodic Commitments.
I hereby officially proclaim that this is no longer a trend, but a fixed reality! Most new volunteers seek assignments with a clear beginning, middle and end. One-time-only volunteering opportunities, such as those coordinated by "Hands On" or "City Cares" organizations, continue to expand. The good news in all this is that, after people have gotten their feet wet in a successful volunteer effort, they often turn around and say: "What can I do next?" So volunteer program managers might start thinking of retention in terms of an ongoing sequence of short-term assignments.

3. Singles as a Target Audience.
Connected to the popularity of one-day volunteer projects, theres a new awareness of an old fact: people who volunteer make friends with other volunteers who share their interests. In a world in which young people delay marriage and in which divorce hits half the couples in the U.S., it isn't surprising that volunteering is being adopted as part of the singles scene. In fact, the tongue-in-cheek recruitment pitch that "volunteering is safer than a singles bar" really resonates today! An increasing number of programs are targeting single volunteers, either as their only participants or for specially-designated work shifts.

4. Welfare Reform.
This is an issue with inconsistent effect on volunteer programs because each state handles it differently--as do a number of other countries around the world. As public assistance rolls are decreased by requiring able-bodied men and women to get a job or go to school, the question of where volunteering fits into the picture is raised. In many states, volunteering is a legally-approved alternative to a paying job or training, allowing someone to keep welfare benefits if s/he logs a certain number of community service hours which are viewed as benefiting the public. But in other states, the opposite reasoning applies: if someone is volunteering, then they can't be seriously looking for a paying job, so community service is disallowed. The jury is not yet in on any of this.

5. Internet-based Distance Learning.
Ive mentioned some new development in cyberspace for the past several years in this trend watch, and technology continues to open new virtual doors. The number and quality of Web sites, listservs and newsgroups offering resources for volunteer program leaders continue to grow. Look for the addition of several exciting uses of this electronic medium, including complete books available at no charge online (look out for books online on the Website soon!), increasing use of audio, and the introduction of streaming video for distance learning options, such that being piloted by The Learning Institute for Nonprofit Organizations ( We are also seeing complete online courses in volunteer management, some even giving academic credit. Now the challenge is to see how volunteer program managers can adapt the technology to train and update active volunteers.

6. Family volunteering.
While receiving much lip service over the years, most agencies have not yet found meaningful ways to put family units to work as volunteers. Interest in this idea is increasing as the century ends, as evidenced by new guidebooks, training materials, and conference presentations. Of course, to make the idea work, we have to recognize the many variations that the word family covers today. Intact nuclear families are in the minority. But volunteer programs can tap into grandparents raising grandchildren, divorced parents with joint custody or visitation time, homes with adults who are each others significant other, and the ties between older and younger siblings.

7. International VPM-Day.
On December 5, 1999, a new holiday begins! Thanks to the driving force of Nan Hawthorne and an ad hoc steering committee of colleagues on the CyberVPM listserv, leaders of volunteer programs will now have a day to recognize their efforts alongside volunteers (see December 5 is International Volunteer Day as proclaimed by the United Nations (and has been since 1984, although most North Americans are unaware of it). This is a day to celebrate the work and accomplishments of volunteers in any setting, anywhere. Thats why VPM-Day is also December 5. The point is to show that volunteers rarely do it alone--every volunteer effort takes coordination. We can grab this opportunity to focus attention on leaders, paid and volunteer, and on the skills of volunteer administration.

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