Together We Stand: Volunteers and Volunteer Resource Managers Connected

By Susan J. Ellis

December 5 is International Volunteer Day (IVD, and, this year in the United States, the Congress of Volunteer Administrator Associations will be deliberating the future of our professional networks on that date.  But this happened by coincidence, not purpose.  Interestingly, International Volunteer Manager Appreciation Day ( was originally created a number of years ago as an additional focus of IVD and so scheduled also for December 5th.  But a majority of the new planning team (and many of the old) felt that this might confuse the public, draw attention away from the main purpose of acknowledging volunteers, and/or not give volunteer resource managers time in the limelight by themselves, so the date was changed to November 1st as of this year.  And the separation is so complete that the IVMA Day site does not even mention IVD as anything of possible import to practitioners.

Both the unintentional scheduling and the purposeful separation brings up a fundamental question for me that is at the heart of the profession of volunteer management:

What exactly is the connection between ourselves as leaders of volunteers and the volunteers we lead?

Ironically, this topic is almost never discussed in volunteer management literature or conferences, because it seems self-evident.  Our entire reason for being is the existence of volunteers, so everything that affects them affects our profession (though it’s humbling to remember that, while we hopefully make an important difference in the effectiveness of volunteers, they would be able to, and often do, function without us).  

But how does our intimate relationship with volunteers affect both our professional practices and how we are viewed by others?
Consider how an articulated philosophy of the value of volunteers can affect what we do daily in our work:

  • The more volunteers are respected and valued, the greater the appreciation for the person leading them.  The paradox, therefore, is that the only way we can elevate our profession in the eyes of employers, funders, and the public is to work ceaselessly for the highest quality of volunteer engagement.  We must be in-house advocates for significant volunteer work design and for inspired and creative outreach for the widest spectrum of donated skills available in our communities.
  • If volunteers are limited to “helping” roles, they take a place on the lowest rungs of the organizational ladder — and where does that place their leader?    We ought to also be managing top-of-the-line “consulting practices” in which the talent we recruit falls into the “much more than we could ever afford” category of assistance:  the best minds and the highest skills.  There is no expertise we cannot get donated if we are willing to recruit volunteers proactively and unapologetically from every level of society (and if we’re flexible as to when such talent can be put to use). 
  • Donated time is inextricably tied to donated money.  Volunteers are the mainstay of all fundraising – both as donors themselves and as organizers of uncountable events and drives – so our separation from the development or fundraising profession is a continuing puzzlement.  As is the unwillingness of organizations to budget appropriately for volunteer involvement.  Only when we champion the concept that volunteers must be considered as a large part of resource development, either because of the value of their services or because of the actual cash they bring in, will our role as mobilizers of this treasure become important to our top management.
  • Frontline volunteers and boardroom volunteers are more alike than different, and the principles of effective volunteer administration apply to each group.  The attitude that board members are more connected, of higher stature, and wealthier than their hands-on counterparts leads to self-fulfilling prophecy and total separation.  This is why we are rarely involved in the recruiting and orienting of board members (or placing volunteers into opportunities to work with, say, department heads), and also why “worker bee” volunteers are never seen as a talent pool for future board openings.  Professionally, our goal should be a continuum of service donated to our agencies, with an ascending scale of available volunteer positions appealing at every stage to the best candidates. 
  • Our role is not to “direct” volunteers but to enable them.  They are not “our” volunteers; we are “their” leaders.
  • Organizations that treat volunteers well are much nicer places to work for as employees.  We ought to see ourselves as organizational developers who model participatory decision-making, create a climate for innovation and dedication, and make all participants feel appreciated for their contributions.  So, for example, perhaps we should plan fewer volunteer recognition luncheons and more “success celebrations” in which everyone – unpaid and paid – applaud collective achievements.

So our vision of the value and status of volunteers cannot be separated from our goals as a profession.  Only when we embrace this connection and articulate our vision, can we move on to deciding on a vision for our profession of leading volunteers.  And, it seems to me, that any celebration containing the word “volunteer” is an opportunity to teach about and applaud both the people who give their time voluntarily and the people who make sure that contribution is as effective as it can be.

Do you agree? 
What other connections do we need to consider between volunteers and our profession?

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