What's in a Name or a Title?

By Susan J. Ellis

A long-unresolved topic has resurfaced in several ways this past month:  What’s the best title for the person who is designated as the leader of volunteers?  Even more important, is there a name/term on which we can all agree as a label for our profession?  Just two of the situations that have elevated this into a current “hot” topic are the publicity surrounding IVMD – International Volunteer Managers Day (November 5, https://volunteermanagersday.org/) – and all the discussions about what to name any organization seeking to “replace” the former AVA – Association for Volunteer Administration.  

What should we call ourselves?  [Alert:  I'm asking everyone to weigh in on this question at the end of the Hot Topic.]  

Evidently there is no right answer, since we’ve been having this debate for decades and are no closer to agreement than before.  If anything, we’ve seen titles go in and out of vogue for various reasons.  Right now the following are the titles seen most often in English-speaking countries:

  •  Volunteer Program Manager (adopted by several of the online communities, such as CyberVPM, OzVPM, UKVPMs)
  •  Volunteer Coordinator
  •  Director of Volunteers
  •  Director of Volunteer Services (very common in hospital setting)
  •  Director of Volunteer Resources
  •  Volunteer Resources Manager (gaining ground just recently)
  •  Volunteers Manager (has some popularity in the UK)

We also use “Volunteer Administration” and “Volunteer Leadership” as umbrella terms for the profession, although very few people hold the title “Volunteer Administrator” or “Leader of Volunteers” – and I doubt anyone would want to!

Let’s look at some of the issues causing concern.

Is “Volunteer” a Noun, an Adjective, or a Limitation?

Since volunteer is both a noun and an adjective, depending on context, it has long been understood that it is less confusing to use it as a noun in our title, as in Coordinator or Manager of Volunteers, rather than Volunteer Coordinator.  The latter continually raises the question “are you paid?”  (It’s another Hot Topic to consider why we react so negatively to being perceived like the people we claim to care about.)  I suspect that’s why our British colleagues have tried Volunteers Manager – it’s short and sweet, yet avoids the implication of the first word as a modifier.  On the other hand, it causes a double take – did I hear that right?  Is it misspelled?

More crucial is the “problem” of having to deal with the general public’s (and our agencies’) stereotypes about what the word volunteer describes.  For those who still think little-old-lady-stuffing-envelopes, any title including the word volunteer is self-evidently low level.  Now that makes us mad!  Besides, the majority of people running volunteer programs are also responsible for a much wider spectrum of unpaid workers, including student interns, loaned executives, court-ordered, and so on, and there are times that a title “limited” to “volunteers” confuses them, too. That’s the rationale behind efforts to find broader terms more reflective of the scope of our work:

  •  Community Resource Manager
  •  Director of Community Outreach

Are We Running a “Program”?

Newcomers are sometimes surprised at the lack of agreement about this, because the term “volunteer program” is so accepted in general conversation.  As a publisher and author, I have found no way around having to discuss volunteer program development and management for the simple and good reason that it communicates something the reader can picture.

However, the problem with referring to volunteer involvement or engagement (two excellent alternative terms) as a “volunteer program” is really inaccurate.  Here’s how to understand the issue.  Do we talk about the “employee program”?  Of course not.  Employees staff the agency and deliver programs.  Similarly, volunteers are not a client service, they are part of the staffing of the organization and also deliver services within existing programs.  Changing the “volunteer program” language is another way of demonstrating that volunteers are integral to the agency and not a possibly temporary activity.

Do We Manage? Direct? Lead? Coordinate? Facilitate?

Whew, here’s how to get your head spinning.  Some folks will tell you in no uncertain terms that one “manages things, not people” – despite the universality of the word management in most executive training programs, whether in for- or not-for-profit settings.  “Directing” also makes some people uncomfortable.  Especially today, with all the talk about Baby Boomers and their desire for more entrepreneurial volunteer roles, the concept of “telling ‘em what to do” seems out of place.  (Of course, our agencies might want us to be in control, which is a different, but related matter!)

In truth, the words coordinate and facilitate seem much more appropriate to what we do.  Ivan Scheier calls us “Dream-Catchers,” in recognition of our unique ability to listen fully to each volunteer and support them in finding what matters most to them to accomplish.

Where Do We Fit on the Organizational Chart and What Are We Paid?

I think that a major reason why we shy away from being called Coordinators or Facilitators is pay scale.  In the 1960s, Harriet Naylor fought for our profession to be recognized in the American government’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles.  She wanted to show that this was more than a job and deserved a career ladder.  Her three ascending levels were:

  •  Lowest level:  Supervisor of Volunteers
  •  Middle level:   Coordinator of Volunteers
  •  Highest level:  Director of Volunteers

These make sense from a paid personnel perspective.  And if you work in an organization in which department heads are called Director of  _____, it’s legitimate to want parallel acknowledgment as the head of volunteer involvement.

So sometimes we need to take a title for what it implies in status and often for what it brings in salary.  Not only do both these benefits matter to us as individuals, but they demonstrate to volunteers exactly how much the organization does or does not value their contributions.

Rearing its ugly head again (I thought we’d beaten it to death 30 years ago) is whether or not someone has to be paid to be considered a member of the profession.  But there are indeed volunteer volunteer coordinators out there, too (return to the first section above)!

The Problem of Multi-tasking

It’s entirely possible that the majority of people who lead volunteer efforts are totally invisible even to those of us actively committed to our field.  That’s because so many people responsible for volunteers have absolutely no mention of it at all in their work title!  They do this work as an add-on to a busy job, finding or stealing hours from other tasks to be, for a few hours at a time, the agency’s de facto volunteer program manager.  So the question is:  when these people (colleagues all) want to educate themselves to work more effectively with volunteers, just what phrase do they type into Google?

What Do We Want?  What Do You Want?

I’ve tried to frame the discussion a bit here but am not proposing an answer to what we “should” call ourselves.  But I feel some urgency right now because we are working on so many fronts to build the profession, from efforts in the USA to replace AVA, to the formation of a new professional association in Singapore, to similar efforts in several other countries. 

  •  What title do you like best and why?  Which do you dislike most and why?
  •  Have you fought for a specific title?  Tell us about it.
  •  What name do you recommend for our profession or field of study, if different from what we call its practitioners?

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