Real Professions Have Strong Associations

By Susan J. Ellis

Ever since I’ve been in volunteerism, and that’s almost four decades now, periodically someone raises the question: “Is volunteer management a profession or a skilled job?” In fact, I’ve frequently contributed to the debate, generally concluding that we are an “emerging profession,” developing many of the elements required to meet the definition of a profession, yet still having a way to go. But how long can something be emerging before we must conclude that it is stuck in place?

I propose that one of the major weaknesses of our field is the sorry state of too many of our professional associations, whether national, regional, or local. Quickly I note that there are some gems out there, valiantly working effectively on behalf of their members. But most are struggling. Energize is in the midst of trying to update our international list of professional associations for volunteer program managers and are finding too many have simply disappeared (whether that means they have closed down or simply are invisible, we don’t know). Again, it is true that new associations have also emerged, but the trend is to lose ground.

Can anyone find your
profession association?

1.  Go to Select your geographic region under “Professional Societies” to see whether your group is listed at all and, if so, if the information shown is correct.

2.  Send an e-mail to, with the following:

  • Copy and paste the URL of the page on which your association is shown, or should be shown.
  • Give us all the information or tell us what needs to be updated. If your association maintains a Web site, please be sure to include the correct URL.
  • If the information posted already is correct, it would be very helpful to confirm that it can remain as is – we will then change the date to reflect 2011, which is helpful to anyone seeking the most recent data.

Please add the responsibility for keeping this (and similar postings elsewhere) up-to-date annually to the role of your association secretary or another officer.

Thank you so much!

The Web has been a saving grace to volunteerism as it offers the only forum in which people committed to advancing the profession can find one another, anywhere in the world, and voice their opinions. Ironically, right now the field’s infrastructure at the national level is in disarray in several countries (budget cuts, unclear missions, uncertain leadership). This means that an individual leader of volunteers who wants to contribute to our profession must act locally and globally. Whether we work on a world-wide level or via one community at a time, virtually or face-to-face, we will make progress only if we perceive associating as power.

Most people join associations for what they can get, not for what they can contribute. For example, prospective members constantly ask, “What are the benefits of membership?” (even though the dues charged by our associations are generally quite low). Here are some examples of what I mean by joining an association to gain power:

  • The point of professional associations is to find like-minded colleagues so we can take collective action on the issues that concern us (having good educational opportunities is a legitimate one of those issues).
  • One of the powerful things about professional associations is that they provide a legitimate umbrella under which individuals can work on even controversial issues in the name of the association, not as representatives of their employing organizations. Rather than passively wait for officers to plan workshops, invite speakers, and propose projects, any member can identify an important topic and seek colleagues to do research, produce a report, contact funders and legislators, propose a course to a university, or anything else. This creates a voice for what volunteer management needs, with more clout than many individuals going it alone. Working together is a form of personal professional development and using the results moves the field forward.
  • People in a profession have a vested interest in maintaining the standards of their work and in raising up generations of new practitioners to follow them. Until our associations recognize the need to train novices while still allowing experienced folks to grow, membership will be a revolving door, with an ever-lowering of the common denominator.

In 2004, I wrote the Hot Topic essay, Chicken or Egg: Why Are Our Professional Associations Weak? Unfortunately the issues I identified then have not changed. Further, here are some observations of issues at play in 2011:

  • Very few of our associations practice the principles of effective volunteer recruitment in growing their membership. These days, associations may have a Web site as well as a printed brochure. But is there any reason for anyone to go to either one? Is the information long outdated? Is “membership development” mainly passive collecting of dues? If we want to increase membership, we need to invite colleagues to join us – actively, continually, intentionally. We need to reach out to any organization that involves volunteers, identify the person in charge, and call them with a personal invitation to the next meeting. We should define “volunteer” broadly and invite emergency responders, student internship coordinators, clergy, and others who really do manage volunteers, even if they use different language. And we can’t forget the presidents of major service clubs and community associations, which are all-volunteer groups. We need to publicize association meetings and events; post notices to community calendars and boards (online and onsite); distribute flyers at related events; send press releases. We are giving a party without sending invitations to any guests!
  • The universal excuse for not doing these things is: “I don’t have the time.” Of course. No one does. Isn’t that exactly what people say to us when we try to recruit them as volunteers in our organizations? But mostly the statement means, “I am very busy, and what you just asked me to do is not of sufficient interest to me to make time.” If association meetings are bor-r-r-ring or there’s no way for a long-time member to do something fresh, why should someone bother to participate? Offer the right topic, speaker, or opportunity, and members will be there. We need to go beyond multi-hour gatherings and try other options: hold conference calls which can take less time; start an online discussion forum; buddy members up in twos or threes and encourage them to eat lunch together once a month and talk about a set topic. Go wild!

I feel that I am tilting at the same windmills over and over. No one will anoint us with the identity of a profession. We cannot be defined by people in other professions. Will the opportunities of IYV+10 (see the December Hot Topic), or the media’s limelight on the value of volunteering, or the desperation of nonprofit and government budget cutting finally propel us into visibility? Leaders of volunteers UNITE! We owe it not only to ourselves in our work, but also to the volunteers who deserve the very best support in contributing their services.

Here are my questions to readers:

  • Is there a local or regional association for volunteer resource managers that you could join?
  • If yes, have you? Are you active? If not, why not? Would you commit to doing one thing, no matter how small, to strengthen the group? Please share.
  • If no, would you commit to finding 3-5 other volunteer resource managers in your community, invite them to lunch, and discuss forming a local association (which could, please note, “meet” virtually)?
  • If you disagree that strong professional associations form the backbone of a profession, what do you feel we need instead for leaders of volunteers?

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