Educating Other Professions about Volunteers: Starting at the Source

By Susan J. Ellis

Without question, training on how to deal with tension between volunteers and paid staff is the topic most requested of those of us who do international training in this field. No matter what type of setting or service provided, or in which country, there is universal concern about building better relationships and creating teamwork between employees and volunteers at all levels.

One reason for this problem is the invisibility of the subject of volunteer involvement in the formal education of just about every profession, both within university curricula and at continuing education opportunities such as conferences. Here are a few examples:

  • Although hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, and clinics are some of the most traditional settings for volunteer work, nursing students and those studying to be physical therapists or activity directors receive no information on how to work with volunteers.

  • Teachers are expected to welcome parent and citizen volunteers into their classrooms, be part of parent/teacher organizations, and even teach the value of community service, yet how many Schools of Education include a course on volunteer supervision? This lack extends even to those studying adult basic education or school administration.

  • Social workers long the group most likely to be resistant to volunteers as non-professional are taught that their profession began as unpaid friendly visitors in the late 1800's and that they fought to be recognized as trained specialists, separating themselves from their early roots. The problem is that a hundred years have passed but most social work courses haven't updated their information about volunteering. Or, those studying in the administration track may be taught about community organizing and volunteer service, but those pursuing clinical social work are not.

  • Seminary students (of all faiths), while facing a lifetime of urging congregational participation and service, do not have the opportunity to learn about working with volunteers before they become clergy. This can be called the God-will-provide method of volunteer management (pray a lot, live a moral life, and volunteers will materialize).

If these four professions leave school unaware of volunteers, just imagine how uninformed people in jobs just a little less likely to work with volunteers (but find themselves asked to do so) might be: park rangers, probation officers, curators, environmentalists, theater managers, athletic coaches, librarians, etc., etc.

Leaving out any discussion of volunteers in professional curricula obviously means many of our colleagues are unprepared to team with volunteers successfully. But the absence of the topic also sends an insidious message: either there is nothing to say about volunteer, or, volunteers don't matter. By the time volunteer program managers encounter staff members who are resistant to volunteers, it's too late. We have to face and undo the consequences of the invisibility of volunteers to our highly-educated colleagues.

What Can We Do?

The good news is that, collectively, we can address this problem by going back to the source. What we need to do is get the attention of: 1) faculty in schools of professional education, 2) conference planners for related professions, and 3) other professional societies. In an ideal world, this effort would be coordinated, monitored, and funded. But we can start to have an impact now in small ways, hoping that the cumulative effect of fighting the battle on many fronts will produce lasting results. Let's discover how.

University Faculty  

Infiltrate! We may need to tackle university professors one by one. Eventually we'll reach critical mass. Here are a few starter ideas:

  • If you became a volunteer program manager by moving out of another profession (which means most of us!), why not write a letter to your old instructors explaining what you do now and how helpful it would be to have learned about volunteers while still in school? Offer to guest lecture in a class, explaining both the role of the volunteer program manager and the principles of working with volunteers. Send a bibliography of books and/or a list of volunteerism Web sites (teachers are readers).
  • Identify those colleagues in different professions who are excellent in working with volunteers (having learned informally over the years) and ask them to write to their old faculty, too.
  • Get your association of volunteer managers to purchase a few volunteer management books and give them as gifts to key faculty at area schools, along with the bibliography/Web site list. Invite some of these faculty to be speakers at one of your meetings and engage them in a discussion of the issue of invisibility of volunteers. Give an award to any teacher already including volunteer management as a subject in professional education.
  • On a grander scale, it would be lovely if some national group were to work on curriculum materials that can be provided to interested faculty, particularly one or two session modules about working with volunteers that could be inserted into existing courses.

Conference Planners

Every profession has its own conferences and other continuing education events, from international gatherings to locally-sponsored workshops. We ought to get booked as speakers! The larger the event, the more the program committee will be seeking new and different topics to add to the breakout session schedule. Offer to conduct a session on working with volunteers chances are it's never been done before.

Professional Societies

Every profession in the world is organized into societies and associations. And their members pay attention to information shared by these networks. So let's get the endorsement or validation from these groups for the importance of learning how to work with volunteers. Again, a few possibilities:

  • Write articles for society newsletters and journals. An article in a magazine for social workers that talks specifically about volunteers in social work settings will be read by the right people we want to reach.

  • Offer to speak at a meeting of the local chapter of the society. Or propose a joint meeting of the chapter and your local DOVIA. Discuss the issues and listen to both perspectives.

  • Give an award to someone for their excellent supervision of volunteers and ask to present it at a meeting of their professional society. Give handouts to the audience explaining why the award is important and including references for further reading and other education about volunteer management.

The ideas above require attention at all levels and for all professions. But we need to work from all these directions at once and each of us can take a role, individually and through our volunteerism networks. If we succeed, we may wipe out resistance to volunteers by preventing it from taking root in the first place. Wouldn't it be lovely to find prepared, educated staff members on board eager for our help in involving community volunteers?

What do you think? What have you and/or your colleagues done? What else can we do?

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