The Missing Link: Where are Volunteers at the National Level?

By Susan J. Ellis

A few weeks ago I spoke at an "e-Philanthropy" conference on the subject of online volunteer recruitment. Since the rest of the 2-day event focused on raising money via the Internet, it was a coup simply to be invited to offer anything on volunteers. At one point, I was discussing the importance of an organization's own homepage (see "If Not Your Home Page, Then Where?") and asked: "If I visit your web site, will I see mention of volunteer involvement?"

One participant replied: "Well, I'm with our national office and we don't have any volunteers at headquarters. That's all done at the local level." I bounced back with: "Why doesn't your headquarters have volunteers working in it or for it?" To which she asked, "but what would volunteers do?"

Her mystification at how volunteers might be incorporated at the national level (apart from the board of directors) was hardly unusual. Finding money is a shared responsibility of all levels of an organization, but finding talented people is seen as done "at the bottom." I've often observed that in many institutions the powerful message to employees is: If you work hard enough and are promoted high enough, some day you won't be asked to work with volunteers. There's an invisible but real demarcation point beyond which department heads and other executives would never be expected to find ways for volunteers to contribute to their projects the way frontline employees must. The same holds true for national vs. local units of a large organization.

Leaving aside the obvious stereotyping of volunteers as nice but unskilled, can YOU think of things that the right, qualified volunteer might do at a national level? Here are just a few of my ideas to get you started:

  • People who live near the physical location of the national office could work in just about any capacity, from highly skilled project work to competent clerical work.
  • Virtual assignments could recruit volunteers anywhere in the world to offer technical assistance on any subject, writing and editing, translations, and online research.
  • Individuals or teams in the field, working almost anywhere, could run focus groups, surveys, and evaluations.
  • The national office could actively solicit volunteer applications for board and advisory council positions (at all levels), identify prospects with the right interests and credentials, and assign them to short-term "test" projects. If there were more ways for someone to help an organization at the national level before going onto the board, there might be fewer do-nothing board members around!

Volunteer Development at the National Level

There are two types of volunteer management staff who should be hired for a national headquarters (those who want to see a career ladder in our field, take note!).

First, if an organization wants to recruit and be effective with volunteers at headquarters (as suggested above), someone has to coordinate the effort. Yet how many national office volunteer program managers do you know? There are national office personnel chiefs, secretarial supervisors, and in-house training heads - but no one assigned to supporting volunteers in the building. If no one is in charge, there will be no volunteers; if there are no volunteers, national staff never learn to understand the issues about successful volunteer administration. And if no one understands - from first-hand experience - the advantages and disadvantages of working with volunteers, how can there be intelligent support for a volunteer management system at any level?

Note that the position I just described is different from another rare but critical assignment: someone tasked with oversight of volunteer involvement issues throughout the organization at all levels. The number of national organizations - and this is an international observation - with a volunteer department or even a single national director of volunteer development is stunningly small. What do you suppose the data is for national fundraising or promotion/marketing staff? If there is no one in-house charged with paying attention to volunteer matters for the organization as a whole, then it follows that volunteers fall between the cracks when it comes to policy making, budgeting, training, and even Web site space.

Last year we convened a "Summit" at the AVA International Conference on Volunteer Administration in Toronto for those individuals working at a national level to create volunteer management systems for their organizations. It was so successful that the group will meet again in October in Denver as a pre-conference 1 ½ day session. 

And About those National Web Sites…
At the "e-Philanthropy" event, I did some more probing about whether it made sense to ignore volunteers on a national Web site. I asked:

"Does your national site explain how to give money at either the national or the local level?" Answer: yes

"Do you give prospective clients information on where to go in their own communities to obtain services?" Answer: yes

"Doesn't your national office see its role as supporting the local level?" Answer: yes

The evident implication: "So why wouldn't you also consider it important to provide a national-to-local outreach effort for volunteers?" Again, if no one at the national level is charged with paying attention, volunteers remain invisible.

Are you part of a national or international organization at any level? What's been your experience? How can we "educate up"?


The Steering Committee for the 2002 Leadership Summit for National Level Managers of Volunteer Resources invites you to join them for an evening and a day of diverse and topical sessions immediately before the 2002 ICVA in Denver. Participants must work at a national level, responsible for volunteer involvement throughout an organizational system. (If you meet this qualification but cannot join us in Denver, please let us know if you are interested in ongoing contact with our newly-forming affinity group.)

On October 8-9, explore the trends and challenges related to volunteerism in current times and learn from Susan Ellis how to make trends work for all of us - now and in the future. Network with others, raise your challenges, share your solutions. Identify the roles of volunteer activists within your organization, and the challenges that their activities might present - internally and externally. And finally, listen to the always genuine inspirational comments from Marlene Wilson. Join us in Denver - recharge your batteries!  [Contact information was removed since no longer applicable.]

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