Moving on from 2001

By Susan J. Ellis

It was quite a year. 2001 started with mixed reviews for the celebration of the International Year of Volunteers and ended with recognition of the efforts of volunteers responding to the terror of September 11th as a sign of undiminished community strength. It wasn't the way any of us would have chosen to make volunteering visible, but IYV2001 will indeed be remembered!

All of us will reflect on 2001 in our own ways, but here are my major thoughts as we move forward into the new year.

The Need for a National Voice

As has already been discussed more than enough in this space, the International Year of Volunteers was an incredibly missed opportunity to affect public opinion, most especially in the United States. It's water over the dam at this point, but a whole lot of people and organizations share the blame. IYV only served to highlight the weaknesses of our professional associations at every level.

We have a problem in the United States and that is that we no longer have a national professional association that can "speak for" us. As the Association for Volunteer Administration (AVA) has extended its commendable goal of reaching out internationally, it has lost (or denied) its position as representing practitioners in the United States. The Points of Light Foundation doesn't ask its members for opinions or direction, and is beholden to its funders and swayed by political influences. So, while other countries have been hard at work creating national associations (Canada, Japan and Australia are just three examples) run by peers, the United States is increasingly UN-organized.

The American volunteer leadership community needs and deserves a place where we can unapologetically tackle topics of concern only to us, particularly as related to government and to major national organizations affecting volunteering in our country. International work is vital (I think I have proven my commitment to that), but we also need national work.

There are a number of possible strategies to improve the situation. One is for AVA to form national divisions or "affinity groups" that have the power to participate in national discussions reflecting on volunteer issues. This would be a service to members in ANY country, once there are enough AVA members from a particular nation to reach critical mass.

Issues, Not Tasks

We are at a very important moment in our professional history. The coming year is an opportunity to build on momentum from IYV (in countries where there was action, such as Canada) and from the publicity surrounding the volunteer response to the terrorist attacks. I urge every state/provincial, national, and international leaders of volunteers association to offer its members substantive information on issues confronting the field. We must stop spending all our time together on the "how to's" of volunteer management and turn instead to the context in which we work. This means workshops, forums, position papers, and other outreach on things like:

  • Implications of spontaneous volunteering at times like natural and human-caused disasters.
  • Gathering truly useful data on volunteer involvement and on the outcomes - the accomplishments - of volunteer efforts (see last month's Hot Topic).
  • Monitoring the studies produced by academic "centers on philanthropy" to assure that citizen participation is researched as much as fundraising is.
  • Educating the media about their role in the image of volunteering.
  • Lobbying for reasonable policies on insurance, police checks and other legal requirements relating to volunteers.
  • Incorporating the expenses of volunteer involvement into funding proposals and educating foundations about these needs.

Once we discuss and understand the issues, we next must teach ourselves successful techniques for affecting necessary change. Until we are ready to make waves through collective action - on behalf of the volunteers we represent - we will not gain respect nor will we have influence.

United We Stand

We also need to stop our endless fragmentation and turfdom. I'm all for choice and do not think that we need just "one" organization. But it seems ridiculous that our various associations (based on settings such as hospitals, justice programs, hospices, museums, etc.) can never get together to issue joint statements or collaborate on training or resource materials.

This begins at the personal level. Are you a volunteerism practitioner or are you someone who works in a hospital, school, museum, military installation, (fill in the blank), who happens to be responsible for volunteers? If you work for the Corporation for National Service, are you part of volunteerism? How about those in school-based service-learning? Do Volunteer Center directors or City Cares managers see themselves in the same profession as a front-line volunteer program manager? What about those who run employee volunteer programs in for-profit corporations? If you're American and attend Points of Light Conferences, notice how the many "streams of service" co-locate, but do not interact.

The fragmentation holds true for celebration of volunteering, too. National Volunteer Week in April (US and Canada) or June (UK) has never made a measurable impact on the public's consciousness, yet new volunteer-related events keep getting added to the calendar. This past November, the call to 35 million AARP members to join in a "National Day of Service" on December 6 was sent without even a mention of International Volunteer Day on December 5 (and we won't even touch the subject of attempting to add appreciation of volunteer program managers on that same December 5!).

There is light on the horizon, however. In Ontario, Canada, the two largest provincial societies consolidated to become Professional Resources of Volunteer Resources-Ontario (PAVR-O in 1998 and, just last month, colleagues in Minnesota merged no less than 13 organizations to become the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration ( MAVA). For more information on this exciting development, see the article about how they did it in the new issue of e-Volunteerism, available as of January 15 . These pioneers are really moving us forward in their determination to provide a united voice for our profession.

What Does this Mean?

Those of us who do not react in meaningful ways to the changes swirling around us will simply be left behind. If current professional associations do not update themselves, new ones will form. If long-standing conferences don't become more relevant, future-looking colleagues will find others, especially those who feel themselves "advanced" and yearn for more thoughtful challenges. Those who do not care to learn Internet skills will simply be left out of exciting new online training, international exchange, and collective deliberation.

I spent much of 2001 in extreme frustration. But I am starting 2002 with the determination to look ahead more often than I look back. What about you?

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