Beyond Common Sense: Volunteer Management as a Specialty

By Susan J. Ellis

Two incidents occurred this past week that reminded me yet again of one of the major challenges facing us in this field: the assumption that “everyone knows” how to work with volunteers.

The first incident involved an organization for which I am just ending a two-year extensive consultation. As so often happens, board member rotation recently brought some new volunteers into leadership positions, including the person responsible for implementing the member involvement plan. The new volunteer was fully briefed on the consultation project by the president, executive director, and me, yet she did not take advantage of any of the expertise offered to her. Last week, at the organization’s annual conference, she distributed a survey that no one had seen in advance. It violated every principle of volunteer recruitment, from not defining the things that needed to be done to having no follow up plan to contact possibly 200 prospects who expressed interest.

The second incident was less important, but typical. In a casual conversation with someone who had just introduced herself as a consultant on the new HIPAA regulations in health care (American legislation that tightens the rules on the privacy of medical records), I mentioned that I, too, had seen the ripple effects of HIPAA on volunteer services in hospitals. Clearly surprised, she asked me to explain. Almost immediately she began to speak of volunteers as “unauthorized” personnel, arguing with what I was telling her about the role of volunteer services or the screening and placement techniques employed by an effective director of volunteer services.

Both of these experiences go beyond a benign lack of understanding. They represent various degrees of hostility to the very suggestion that someone can, in fact, have some expertise on the subject of volunteers – an attitude of my opinions on this are equal to yours.

First Know What You Do Not Know

What is it about our field that everyone thinks they know how to do or how to interpret it? Why would anyone assume that working with volunteers is simply a matter of instinct, common sense, and being nice?

One reason is that everyone can be a volunteer—and so many people have had a volunteer experience personally. So they somehow extrapolate that “being a volunteer” is the same as “managing volunteers.” A wild leap of logic! In workshops, I always get a laugh when I compare this assumption to saying: “I’ve had brain surgery, so I can do brain surgery.” Perhaps a tiny bit of education might need to occur first? Well, the same is true about knowing what it takes to be successful in running a volunteer program.

Now extend this faulty reasoning to some very practical issues in our field:

  • Executives who hire a volunteer program manager largely based on “what volunteering have you done?” rather than professional credentials or experience in coordinating volunteers. This includes promoting a volunteer program secretary or long-time volunteer to director (unless such individuals can demonstrate management effectiveness).

  • Newcomers to our field (who took the job for exactly the same reason as it was offered, see above), rarely spend their first weeks on the job seeking information. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard: “Wow! I can’t believe all the resources Energize offers! I never knew I could get this sort of stuff.” But did you look? Unlike the isolation of practitioners even a decade ago, the Internet makes it so easy today for anyone to do a search on “volunteer management” and find hundreds of sites with worthwhile material. It simply requires a mindset of self-education, if someone recognizes that there is something to learn.

  • Volunteers remain the invisible and ignored subject in just about every academic program on philanthropy, nonprofit management, and public administration. Hours of classroom time are spent on fund raising, none on people raising. There is an insidious effect of this neglect: it implies that there is nothing to say on the subject! So why are we surprised that people earn a degree or certificate, move into executive positions, and make uninformed decisions about volunteer involvement in their agencies?

  • Every political administration in the US since Kennedy has called for more “civic engagement” (this year’s popular term for volunteering). And this is true in other countries right now, too, including the formerly Communist nations that have been flooded with consultants urging the American nonprofit model. No matter how often we protest, the rhetoric remains focused on recruiting, motivating, or exhorting people to give their time. Yet the real challenge is preparing organizations to be effective in accepting such volunteers. Unless and until government and private funders “get” this basic fact, calls to action will ultimately fail.

You can test this oblivious under-estimating of our work in conversations with your friends, too. Try discussing some issue you’re tackling at work and listen to what and how your acquaintances respond. They will immediately assume that they can help you and often will start explaining something that happened in some volunteering they’ve done. Now, if you were an electrical engineer and shared a current work problem, do you think everyone would presume their uneducated opinion would be helpful?

What Can We Do?

This is not just another whine (though it’s comforting to vent). I think we can each do small things to improve the situation. Here are three of my ideas:

  • We should challenge ignorance when we hear it. Whether it’s our best friend or our boss, we need to respond to stereotyping or wrong assumptions expressed with some variation of “well, actually, that is not state-of-the-art thinking in my field….”

  • Submit reports on volunteer activity that include the work done to facilitate it as well as simply the product. For example, report that you interviewed more candidates than you accepted, how many hours of orientation and training you offered to volunteers, or what types of support you gave to staff to help them be better teammates with volunteers.

  • Be proactive in bringing volunteer-relevant issues to the attention of our co-workers. For example, after attending a workshop or conference, send a memo or give a short presentation at a staff meeting about trends you just heard that are likely to have an impact on your setting.

Lack of acceptance of our special expertise is critical and not just annoying. It goes to the heart of our profession and of the support volunteers deserve. As with so many other things, the solution starts with us. We need to value our skills and confront those who assume their “common sense” equates with our experience.

What ideas for taking action do you suggest?

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Anonymous, Clute, TX 77531, USA

My employer was looking for a volunteer, volunteer coordinator. They couldn't find one. I had been working here for many years and wanted to cut back to part time, so it is working well for both of us. I am very thankful that the new Director and board sees the value of a coordinator. Though my only professional schooling on volunteering is a 24 hour class class at Rice University in Houston, which was excellent.