Reimagining Service: Is Corporate HR Management What We See?

By Susan J. Ellis

We are at a new stage of the "Reimagining Service" initiative in the United States and some red warning lights are blazing. If you have not yet read the 12-page "final report" released last year titled, Reimagining Service: Turning Good Intentions into Greater Impact, I urge you to look at it now.* It remains exactly the same a year later, with no evidence of any refinement or additions, but it is driving new activity right now.

The report presents the state of volunteering in nonprofit organizations from the perspective of a cadre of specially invited, high-ranking corporate executives, funders, government officials, and advocates of full-time national service. Many of their conclusions, while not new (such as noting that "volunteers are not free"), are completely valid. They draw attention to the lack of resources and expertise supporting volunteer engagement in too many nonprofit organizations. And some of their proposed solutions make a lot of sense.

But there is one glaring problem: Somehow they never discovered the profession of volunteer resources management, with its courses, books, journals, conferences, and experienced practitioners. Instead, they focus on corporate human resources professionals as the solution to increasing the capacity of nonprofits to recruit and work with more volunteers.

In her April 6, 2010 blog post, Jayne Cravens of Coyote Communications issued the challenge, "Don't let them equate volunteer management with HR management."

If you see volunteer management as just HR management, then you will love Reimagining Service, which promotes the idea of applying private sector human resources practices to nonprofit organizations. It's all about "there's a lot of work to be done; let's get volunteers to do it!" It ignores emerging trends regarding volunteer management and takes us several steps back.

Also this April, an “Update” appeared on the Reimagining Service site. It thanked all the 450 people who had submitted comments – without identifying who they were, what they said, or any impact they may have had. There have been more invitation-only bigwig summits, including one at the White House. There is also now an “HR Action Team” led by staff at the Taproot Foundation (dedicated to corporate pro bono work) and Gap Inc. (yes, the retailer). Among the Team’s reported activities:

  • Corporate Volunteer Management research, being led by CommonGood Careers. This will examine current volunteer management practices among corporations.
  • Mapping Corporate HR Resources, being conducted by the Society of HR Management (SHRM). This is the first of two phases of research to identify expertise, techniques and other resources in the profession that could be leveraged to meet nonprofit needs.
  • Inventory of HR Resources Available to Nonprofits, being conducted by Gap Inc. This will identify the resources already available so we don't reinvent the wheel.

Don’t you wonder what they’ll find, if no one points them towards volunteer management-specific resources?

Want to Read More?

Of course there are similarities between volunteer management and human resources (after all, volunteers are both human and a resource). Both functions recruit and place workers into an organization. Both require policies and guidelines to clarify expectations of paid and volunteer personnel. So collaboration between these functions is the key. But there are critical differences, too. Among them:

  • Human resources staff can’t hire anyone unless there is money for a salary. Money is not the key factor in volunteer management.
  • In the majority of nonprofit organizations, volunteers far outnumber the paid staff. Even though each volunteer works far fewer hours than a single employee, the volunteer manager still needs to recruit, interview, place, orient, and coordinate every volunteer.
  • Human resources staff recruit for the qualifications to do a job. Volunteer resources managers do that too, but can also be creative in finding people with the potential to evolve expertise, engaging talent offered by those under 18 and over 65, and creating roles for people who unexpectedly offer useful skills. Not to mention accommodating all sorts of short-term, single-day, and virtual service options.
  • Human resources staff do not have any service delivery responsibilities; they assist other departments. But the director of volunteer involvement is much more involved in day-to-day agency activities and may supervise some program volunteers directly.

In terms of Reimagining Service’s goals, the other big issue is that human resources professionals in the business world face a huge learning curve to understand how nonprofits operate, let alone volunteers in nonprofits.

There is some irony in all this, too. Human resources folks often feel unappreciated in the same way volunteer program managers do. HR has the same struggles in the corporate world as VPMs have in the nonprofit world. How about if we just starting respecting both roles more and let each do their unique work to the fullest of their capacity?

Here’s Your Chance…

On June 29th, at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, the 90-minute “Re-Imagining Service Forum” is making attendees this offer:

Learn how you can apply ideas generated by Reimagining Service to your organization's work. We are a multi-sector effort, made up of representatives from government, nonprofits, and corporations that are seeking to increase the impact of volunteerism.

Go to the session and speak up. If there is no chance to give input on site (quite likely), follow up with e-mails or letters to the panelists.

One reason that volunteer management is not at the Reimagining Service table is that we’re largely invisible at the national decision-making, political level. We have been marginalized at the National Conference and are still struggling to form an effective national professional association. But we have some strong state associations and we have the Web. Online we can make our opinions known. You can start here and I promise that I will publicize your responses to any leader I can access.

  • What do you think of this self-directed volunteer idea?
  • Are you already providing services in this way? Please tell us about it.
  • What do you see as the role of leaders of volunteer involvement in designing and running this kind of volunteer service?


*Full disclosure: I was asked by Michelle Nunn to review the Reimagining Service report just days before it was published last year and attempted to get the authors to avoid the most egregious issues. Mostly I failed (partly because it was just too late), but did manage to get the volunteer management profession at least mentioned in the final text, as the version I read never used the term while extolling the corporate human resources profession as the magic cure for nonprofit volunteer engagement. This bit of service is why I am acknowledged on the last page of the report, but since that time I have not been asked to give any other input or participate in the process in any way.

Responses from Readers

Submitted 15 June 2010 by Kelly Callahan, Brookgreen Gardens, Murrells Inlet, SC USA
Susan, thank you for bringing this to our attention! I will be forwarding this to the SCAVA Board and encouraging our members to respond. We are professionals in a field that we must constantly "prove ourselves". Some do recognize it. Our CEO at Brookgreen Gardens, who has a career background in retail, told me once, "in his experience, what I do as a Volunteer Resource Manager, provides me with better training in managing a staff than any MBA." He fully believes the strength of a non-profit is parallel to the strength of its volunteer program!

Submitted 9 June 2010 by Christer Leopold, Consultant, Voluntarius - Voluntary Strategies, Sweden
I fully agree, Susan. When something pops up like this in the US, where volunteer management is so well developed, then imagine the problems this initiative might cause in other countries, if spread there, which is not unlikely. I hope you can help it turn into something useful instead. I would also like to add that even HR for staff has to be different in non-profits from companies.

Submitted 8 June 2010 by Sue Hine, Independent Advocate, Wellington, New Zealand
Thanks for highlighting (again) the distinctions between corporate HR and VM. I find Reimagining Services' thesis just as suspect as the motives for corporate volunteering. I do not want to see corporates and the HR industry make a mess of volunteerism and our sector, even if they think they have all the answers. And hey, they would probably be looking for appropriate levels of funding - I don't think all contributions would be 'pro bono'. So I will join your crusade Susan, every which way I can, to maintain the distinctiveness of managing volunteers, and to uphold the professionalism we contribute to volunteering and to NGO services.

The third party in this mix is government policy and programmes which extol the virtues of volunteering, with never a nod to how the services happen. The most recent exposure is found in policy directives issued by the new UK coalition (see, suggesting a brave new world will arise from social action that includes compulsory volunteerism. Caveat emptor...

Submitted 7 June 2010 by Gretchen Jordan, AL!VE, Board President, USA
If you've worked in both the nonprofit AND corporate and/or for-profit sector you know the role an HR professional plays and I agree with you Susan, there is a major difference. A Volunteer Resource Manager indeed does so much more with less, and has the wonderful opportunity to provide a transformative experience for the volunteer, the agency and the community. Our profession requires knowledge and skills that deserve further and enhanced attention within Reimagining Service and at all national, statewide and local levels. AL!VE, organizationally and it's membership is growing, and the larger we can grow, the more we can provide that national voice to advocate for the recognition of the field, provide a knowledge network, and facilitate educational and supportive experiences for all involved in volunteer resource management, from national service programs to the small non-profit in rural Anytown, USA. Thank you for bringing up this important point. See you at NCVS!

Submitted 7 June 2010 by Martin J Cowling, People First-Total Solutions, CEO
As a Human Resources Practitioner myself, I strongly believe that HR practices are a key part of a manager of volunteer's role. I also argue that volunteers along with interns, students, consultants and contractors need to be factored into an agency's overall Human Resources goals, strategy and budgets. BUT and a Big BUT! HR management is one strand of Volunteer Management. I believe one of three. I addressed this at the Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management and am in the midst of writing an article on it.

If we reduce volunteers to merely unpaid employees and try to impose only HR management practices, we have missed the whole point of volunteering and worse, I dare to say potentially are undermining volunteerism. Another one of my Sabotage articles is coming!

Submitted 4 June 2010 by Laura Norvig, Librarian, Resource Center/ETR Associates, Scotts Valley, CA USA
Nancy Schwartz on twitter just pointed to an excellent thought about bridging silos instead of breaking them down.

Although in this case we are talking about different silos in different parts of the sector, I think it's still important to focus on the bridging opportunities. We know there are many "incidental" volunteer managers, such as HR people in a corporate setting, or volunteers themselves in small nonprofits. So, how can professional VRMs assist, build up, train, and support those incidental managers? To me that is a key question for getting things done in the service sector.

Submitted 4 June 2010 by H. Roberts, Blankie Depot - Project Linus NJ, Inc., Pres.
Keyport/NJ USA

With all due respect to the comments posted by Cori Read, of the Points of Light Institute (ed. note - see comment directly below), the words Volunteer Resources Manager do not appear anywhere in the Reimagining Service proposal.

However, early within the Reimagining Service document a primary goal
states: "Bring the best human resources management practices to the service sector to attract, acquire, inspire and retain volunteer talent."

Volunteer Resource Managers have been providing service on a national level that attract, acquire, inspire and retain volunteer talent for decades. Where does recognize hundreds of highly trained, career VRM's?

If career VRM's and those dedicated to propelling the professional of volunteer admin. don't recognize their profession in this innovative document or believe the intention of the pending Conference may actually exclude them as authoritative contributors to the future of volunteerism and national service, there should be reason for concern.

Submitted 3 June 2010 by Cori Read, Points of Light Institute, Director, Government and Foundation Partnerships, Atlanta, GA United States
Say what you wish about Reimagining Service, but it is incorrect to say that volunteer management has been marginalized at the conference. The Effective Volunteer Management focus area includes 17 separate workshops, not to mention the many other ways it will be covered within the conference.

Susan replies:

Thanks for your post. Of course volunteer management issues are incorporated throughout the sessions, but the NCVS has (quoting your Web site): “170 workshops, 14 immersion learning sessions and 17 issue forums.” So 17 sessions focused on volunteer management for 6,000 participants is not exactly front and center – at a time when every study concludes that successful volunteer engagement requires designated, trained leadership.

Submitted 3 June 2010 by Jayne Cravens, Consultant, Portland, Oregon USA
I've blogged about this again - thanks for the prompt, Susan! I'm asking people to get to that meeting and get these folks to reimagine their "Reimagining Service" report! They can ignore emails, but they can't ignore lots of people at that meeting! I've made it my Facebook and LinkedIn status updates, I've tweeted it, and I'll be posting it on the walls of some folks I know who are going to the meeting. Let's put all this social-media-leads-to-onsite-action to the test and get the word out and get volunteer managers at this meeting in NYC! (

Submitted 3 June 2010 by DJ Cronin, Manager of Volunteer Services in Brisbane, Australia
My reply to your post veers away from your final 3 questions and focuses more on what you call the blazing red warning lights.

Though very much an American specific issue this time it does offer volunteer management sectors in any part of the globe a glimpse at what can occur when the field is not consulted.

My hypothesis is that the field is not truly consulted on such issues because people don’t realise or believe that such a field exists! It gets harder when people within the field itself can’t see or believe that such a field exists! A weak and toothless volunteer management sector exhibits many symptoms. The issue that you attempt to get to the heart of here is but one. I would love to hear your views sometime in the future why your nation is still struggling to form an effective national professional association.

Furthermore you say that one reason that volunteer management is not at the Reimagining Service table is that the VM field is largely invisible at the national decision-making, political level. The one worded question I keep coming back to is “why?”

Rather than perpetuate a victimhood state of affairs why can’t we more seriously analyze our current invisibility in a real and mature fashion. Since I’ve been beating the same drum for awhile I’ve been reminded that good things are happening. But not enough in my humble opinion. So even though the muscles are getting weary I vow not to stop beating this drum ‘till someone listens. And someone is listening when Reimagining Service is consulting our sector, when VMs realise that we are a sector, when Government consult with us, when National associations for volunteering realise we are part of the picture, when volunteer management becomes a key topic at National conferences on volunteering, when the press approach us for views pertaining to volunteerism, when our professional associations have high membership and are able to fund staff to take their associations to the next level. When we are rightly significant on a national level!

To paraphrase Shakespeare – something is rotten in the state of volunteer management.

Individually, volunteer managers are doing great things. I know this. Collectively we are also achieving some wonderful things. But on national scales we don’t seem to matter. And when decisions are made at national levels then it does impact on us. It’s like Government saying that they plan to increase volunteering levels by 50% but don’t consult with the VM field about it. “Sure – we’ll campaign to get another million registered volunteers but we won’t look at ensuring the resources are there to enable and facilitate such growth”……”volunteers have managers???”…”who knew?”

I hope you won’t mind that I’ve repeated this on my blog ( ) and expand on the matter. Thank you for giving me the food for thought.

PS – I am assuming that you didn’t receive a reply from President Obama to your open letter? Perhaps I have missed it on your site?

Susan replies:

No, DJ, not a word from anyone in the administration (and we also sent it on paper with the book, By the People!).

Submitted 3 June 2010 by H. Roberts, Blankie Depot - Project Linus NJ, Inc., Pres.
Keyport/NJ USA

The dismissal of VMR's from the re-image proposal and the focus placed upon HR professionals is both fascinating and infuriating.

Many questions leap to mind including: who beyond the individual, values a CVA credential? Why do colleges offer degrees in non profit management and volunteer administration if the career offers no authority? Why haven't HR pros taken a peer-to-peer approach and enlightened the Reimagining Service team? Why do VRM associations exist if not to educate the uneducated to our field? HR pros and VRM's should be working together.

We dwell on the ridiculous notion that recruiting volunteers or unpaid support is somehow less than. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth? We don't have enough non profits hiring VRM's in paid positions and yet we have not taken stock of the collective strengths that do exist in the field, in research, in the classroom, in the office and at the Board table and fought for a authoritative place at a political level. The dismissal of VRM's is our own doing and the time is now to stop allowing our profession to continue nameless, voiceless and careless.

Susan, for those of us unable to attend the conference, where and to whom do we send our questions and voice our views?

Susan replies:

Excellent question, Hillary! The official contact e-mail on the Reimagining site is, so I would use that for now. But you can also send a message directly to Michelle Nunn, CEO of the Points of Light Institute, Aaron Hurst, President of the Taproot Foundation, and Bobbi Silten, Chief Foundation Officer of Gap Inc. You are welcome to cc me at, and I'll accumulate them and try to send them after the conference as a group.

Submitted 2 June 2010 by Jennifer Teeler, Volunteer Coordinator, City of Federal Way, WA USA
One other important difference between Volunteer Management and HR Management is compensation. While HR Managers hire workers who will get paid for their time, Volunteer Managers must find other forms of "compensation" for the workers that they hire. It takes creativity, sensitivity and communication to make volunteering a worthwhile way for individuals to spend their precious time!

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