Still Tilting at Windmills

By Susan J. Ellis

I had some trouble focusing on a single Hot Topic this month because my career was sort of flashing before my eyes. You see, this month it’s 34 years that I first became involved in this field. Further, I’m in the final stages of sending the 3 rd edition of By The People: A History of Americans as Volunteers to press, which also makes me philosophical and retrospective, as Katie Campbell and I began work on the original edition back in 1975.

My major reflection is: The more things change, the more they stay the same. While I have witnessed huge and exciting developments in volunteerism in these decades, many of the challenges are still looming windmills to fight. Also, the most stimulating activities right now are occurring far outside the United States, while here it is harder to find innovators or leaders.

Here’s a grab bag of three areas, among many, that have me thinking back and wondering about what lies ahead.

Resistance Redux

Many of you have heard Marlene Wilson tell the story of the 1973 conference about volunteers in Ann Arbor, Michigan that was picketed by labor unions because they were angry at “volunteers who take jobs.” Typical of volunteerism folks, the leaders were invited in to talk openly to conferees. During a somewhat heated discussion in a room of about 300 people, Marlene remembers a young person raising her hand and, when recognized, asking the union rep: “Are you getting paid to be here picketing today?” It changed the tone of the debate – although not the opinions. The punch line, of course, is that I was the young woman, doing my very first conference workshop on about justice volunteering, as a representative of the Family Court.

Now look at the following e-mail we received this week from a Web site visitor:

While volunteers have their place, the idea that anyone should work for free is inimical to labor organizing to begin with. Volunteers and social justice types will tell themselves, "I'm not in it for the money", but they will quickly find out that it is hypocritical and contradictory. If labor unions don't pay their workers (and pay them decently), then they have no moral authority on the matter. Likewise, if someone works for free in a setting where other people are trying to make a living, they are being a scab (regardless of the for-profit or non-profit orientation).

Interestingly, the person requested that the comment be posted anonymously, but what’s important is that he said he’s “a student in Maryland.” I answered him in some detail, but it all felt very déjà vu.

Are we growing yet another generation of young people who, despite years of “community service” and “service-learning” requirements, are still ignorant of the power of volunteering and its role in our societies?

Invisibility within Philanthropy

About fifteen years ago, because I was already coming to Cleveland to do a workshop, colleagues there approached the Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Case Western University (one of the first such programs in the country) about having me do a presentation on volunteerism for their students and faculty. It took months of persuasion and finally they allowed me to do a “brown bag lunch talk,” a periodic informal gathering as opposed to their publicized and more prestigious “guest lecturer” series. The session was standing room only and went extremely well. When it was over, the director of the Center said to me: “This was much more interesting than I expected it to be.” He promised to consider giving more serious attention to the subject as they developed their curricula. Today, however, volunteer management is still buried in one course titled “ Managing Human Resources in Nonprofit Organizations.” Which I guess is better than a course on human resources that doesn’t mention volunteers!

The absence of the subject of volunteers in academic programs professing to train agency administrators continues to frustrate me. While I think it’s silly (since checks need a human hand to write them out), I don’t mind when a program that calls itself “fundraising” ignores volunteer management. But the more common terminology today is “Nonprofit Management” or the broader “Philanthropy,” and then I very much mind volunteer engagement being off the radar screen:

  • A search on the term “volunteer management” at the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University Web site turns up one lonely reference within a nursing and philanthropy degree.
  • The Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society at City College of New York turned up zero matches (although they are publishing some research on giving money and volunteering by different ethnic groups).
  • The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy of the University of Southern California claims in its formal description that it “conducts research on philanthropy, volunteerism, and the role of the nonprofit sector in America’s communities,” but there is absolutely no evidence of the second topic to be found in their material.
  • The Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard does mention volunteers in much of its literature, but only includes “volunteer management” as one of many subjects in one course in its 2001-2 catalog provided online (out of 80 pages of courses).

On the positive side, Sarah Jane Rehnborg is valiantly working at making the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas-Austin a major presence for volunteer-related studies (

Of course, even if these schools suddenly discovered our field, they’d have no one on faculty qualified to teach it! How do we break this cycle?

Our Professional Associations

It’s been a true joy to act as “midwife” over the years as new professional associations get started around the world. I’ve been privileged to be at first-ever (or at least seminal) conferences in Ecuador, Japan, Finland, Sweden, Singapore, and various sites for Volonteurope. There is palpable enthusiasm overseas when colleagues meet together and share resources.

Yet in my own home state, both the Pennsylvania Association for Volunteerism and the local, Delaware Valley Association for Volunteer Administrators have been forced to cancel their annual conferences two years in a row for lack of interest – not to mention the difficulty of getting colleagues to accept leadership positions to move the associations forward. And we are not alone. In the past two years I’ve heard of a number of other professional networks struggling to stay alive.

I was actually the person who made the motion almost twenty years ago at an annual meeting of the Association for Volunteer Administration to add “International” to the name of the “Conference on Volunteer Administration.” Clearly I believe in international exchange. But in the past few years AVA has become so focused on reaching other parts of the world that its still mainly American members effectively have lost a national network. Where can we go to discuss issues that legitimately matter only to the US or need an American perspective or plan?

This is not meant to be a rant, although it does have some depressing themes. That’s because I do worry about the future for our field in the US. On the other hand, there’s always the rest of the globe.

In addition to the questions I posed above as I went along, please respond to these:

Have you been in the field for some time? What changes and/or continuing challenges do you see?

What do you feel positive about in our field right now?

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