Chicken or Egg: Why Are Our Professional Associations Weak?

By Susan J. Ellis

After several years of increasingly smaller audiences, both my local DOVIA and my state association cancelled their annual training conferences this year because registrations fell to a record low. In England, a multi-year attempt to foster a national association of volunteer program managers admitted failure. Despite three consecutive years of “let’s-get-started” events, a network of national organization staff responsible for national-level volunteer resource offices has still not gotten beyond square one. AVA membership figures continue – for more than two decades -- to hover around the 2,000 mark, although even a conservative estimate would determine a potential membership pool of over 300,000.

Of course there are some sterling examples of strong professional networks in our field, but they are sadly few and far between. Most struggle to maintain membership levels, find it hard to get members to take leadership roles, and chronically run on shoestring budgets.

Why? And which came first: weak professional associations or a weak profession?

This issue, which obviously starts at the local level on up (or perhaps on the national level on down), is integrally related with the recurring question of “is volunteer management a profession?”

The Chicken

Why do professionals form societies? There’s power in numbers, especially at the national level:

  • for collegial exchange and debate on issues
  • for licensing or accrediting – setting standards for themselves
  • to speak with one voice on issues facing them, especially to protest when something surfaces with the potential to do more harm than good
  • to mentor newcomers to the field
  • to analyze trends through the lens of their perspective/approach
  • to affect public and political opinion on behalf of their profession (and, often, the people they serve)

The reason for forming counterparts at the local level is to provide nearby support, answers to quick questions, and contacts for job changes.

Go back and review the list of reasons for the existence of professional societies. How would you rate the volunteerism associations to which you belong in each of these activities? If we’re honest in our assessments, we’d have some dismally low scores. For example, very few of our associations have public affairs, political action, or even current issues committees charged with keeping informed about news affecting the field. And even fewer conferences offer a forum for learning about or discussing such trends. Perhaps the worst thing is the lack of courage to criticize public policy even when it is clear that government officials or funders are negating our legitimate knowledge of best practices in our field.

Further, most associations’ training events tend to cater to newcomers, rarely providing more experienced volunteer program managers with advanced materials to meet their needs. Similarly, many DOVIAs find that veteran members tend to stop coming to meetings after a while because there is nothing new – making it hard to show newcomers that this is a profession with any type of career ladder.

The Egg

Why is it so hard for volunteer management professionals to form viable, strong associations? I’ve discussed this in one way or another at least four times since I began writing these Hot Topics in 1997 (see links at the end of this essay), but the answer eludes me.

I recognize a number of important factors. For example:

  • For too many practitioners, leading a volunteer effort is a job, not a career. Therefore people seek how-to skill training that they can apply now. They are not focused on the long-term in this field and, in fact, expect to leave the position as they advance in whatever they do consider to be their career. So joining or being active in a volunteerism professional society does not further their goals.
  • Most of us did not come to this work through the channel of formal education – and it seems unlikely this will change soon. We tend to “fall into” the field and learn by doing (or, if we’re lucky, chance upon a mentor or a useful conference). So there is not a consistent flow of new practitioners coming from educational programs, supported by faculty who prepared them for integrating into a profession.
  • Because so many of us are isolated in our positions (the only one in our agencies doing this work), we haven’t learned the skills of collegiality. Although we may be creative in finding all sorts of community organizations to participate in our volunteer programs’ work, we focus on collaboration to help everyone but ourselves (that seems too selfish).
  • The settings in which we work are so incredibly diverse that we are quite fragmented. Added to our isolation within our organizations, this results in many people not even knowing where to obtain information about volunteerism associations.

Money Is a Red Herring

Bring together the officers of any volunteerism association and ask them why they think it’s a struggle to get people to pay membership dues or attend events and they’ll start talking about the lack of money in this field. Sure money is tight, but our field notoriously runs events on the cheap, with annual dues for association memberships far lower than any comparative profession.

Certainly there are volunteer program managers without a professional development budget, though the question is whether or not this is true for other positions in an agency or just for us. But the fact is many of us won’t spend our own money for anything – once again because we don’t see a career path for which we are willing to extend ourselves. It’s a fact: If we’re in a job, we expect our employer to pay our expenses. If we’re in a career, we don’t expect someone else to obtain it for us, though we’ll happily accept reimbursement if we can get it.

More proof that money is not really the issue is that many conference scholarships have been known to go begging. We also don’t brainstorm how to cut expenses. For example, I’ve suggested for years that volunteer centers or DOVIAs organize a group bus rental to take local people to a state or nearby national conference. I’ve never seen it happen (if you have, please tell us all how it worked out, please). Further, only a handful of workshop sponsors even try to ask outside sources for funds, such as underwriting the cost of speaker fees and travel.

Finally, some will say that the problem is being in a field that’s predominantly women. Sure there is some correlation, but look at teachers, nurses, and social workers, all of whom are disproportionately female and yet have managed to create strong professional associations.

Do you agree our professional associations are generally weak?

Why do you think this is?

What can we do about it? (Maybe we can make some collective new year’s resolutions to try out some of the ideas.)

Receive an update when the next "News and Tips" is posted!


Permission to Reprint