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The Competitive Edge: Tension between Volunteer Centers and Volunteer Resources Managers and How to Change It



We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Volunteer Centers as we worked on this issue of the journal. While the focus is on the centers themselves, they cannot be examined in a vacuum. Most Volunteer Centers have no independent purpose apart from the volunteer community they serve (more on what that community is in a moment). So it would seem vital for a Volunteer Center to develop strong, mutually-supportive relationships with any organization committed to engaging or deploying volunteers of any kind. Those working in the trenches every day with volunteers ought to see their Volunteer Center as an ally and advocate.

Unfortunately we have all too often seen communities where there is more tension than harmony among these partners. What interferes with a strong alliance is competition. Rather than each player starting from strength and then cooperating to become even stronger, Volunteer Centers are often perceived as fighting for their niche “over” instead of “next to” the organizations they serve.

What is going on? Let’s examine some of the factors that drive a wedge between sectors of the volunteer community.

Competition for Funding

Even in the best of times, it is hard to get adequate funding for anything related to volunteering – which is supposed to be a resource that “saves” money, not spends it. This frustration is universally felt whether it is by a volunteer-involving organization seeking funds for a volunteer initiative or a Volunteer Center trying to explain its role in supporting successful community engagement.

Several of the articles in this issue mention the challenges of explaining the work of a Volunteer Center to a funder, because many funders prefer to underwrite direct action over consulting, training, and advocacy. The problem is real. What makes it a cause for tension between Volunteer Centers and agencies, however, is that funders allocate money to both from the same pot. In other words, Volunteer Centers are in direct competition with agencies for what is already a small pool of funds.

In an ideal world, Volunteer Centers would be placed in a different funding category than the agencies they support. We are not sure what that would be, but grant makers ought to be able to distinguish proposals from individual organizations that do direct service from those that provide infrastructure support to an entire community of organizations.

Ownership of Performance Data

Tied to competition for money is the need for all parties to demonstrate the value their work provides. The trouble is that Volunteer Centers have not developed significant indicators of what they contribute to the volunteer landscape.

In our Points of View essay two issues ago, “The Uncertain Future of Local Volunteer Centers,” we discussed the dismay of many centers at the technological advances that radically diminished their role in brokering. Where once a Volunteer Center saw itself as identifying and listing volunteer opportunities in their city, and then finding, interviewing,  and referring prospective volunteers to the agencies with those openings, the Internet now offers platforms no longer needing an intermediary. And online registries of volunteer opportunities are bigger and better than anything a single Volunteer Center could ever collect independently.

Rather than breathing a collective sigh of relief at being freed from the hard work of  brokerage to focus on other (more important?) areas like helping agencies develop volunteer roles or upskilling volunteer resource managers, Volunteer Centers felt bereft. “They are doing our job!” Even today, some centers continue to maintain a local online database of volunteer opportunities, in defiance of what they feel are huge, impersonal sites.

Under the old system, when asked to quantify the accomplishments of the Volunteer Center, it was common to report such statistics as the number of volunteer opportunities listed and the number of people who expressed interest and were referred to agencies.

Think about these measures. Whose statistics are they, really? Volunteer Centers did provide a service by collecting and centralizing the list of volunteer opportunities, but those positions did not “belong” to the centers. No credit was due to the centers for the amount of volunteering being done. Agency volunteer resources managers did not like their work somehow being used by the Volunteer Center to promote itself.

Now that Internet sites are the source of information about volunteer opportunities, Volunteer Centers must find more credible data to demonstrate their worth.

Need for Mutual Respect and Common Goals

Both of us travel extensively and speak to many colleagues. It dismays us to hear some of the opinions volunteer resources managers (VRMs) and Volunteer Center directors hold of each other. It boils down to undervaluing and disrespecting roles and competence.

To understand this tension, one must recognize some important factors:

  • Volunteer Center staff perceive (sometimes correctly) VRMs as low-level staff and want to deal at a higher level, such as with the senior managers and boards of agencies. The more the Volunteer Center is associated with VRMs, the less likely they will gain access to key decision makers. So the push is to separate themselves.
  • We all know that most VRMs fall into volunteer management, hired into their first job in the field without any real qualifications for the role. The same is true of Volunteer Center staff. But while a newbie VRM learns the ropes within a single organization, Volunteer Center staff are thrust immediately into a community-wide position, expected to “represent” all volunteering. So their learning curve is more public. Worse, they may inherit responsibilities such as running training courses for new VRMs, and then deliver this training without addressing their own need to learn first (which reinforces the belief that VRMs are low-level staff who do something anyone can do).
  • There are still Volunteer Centers that do not involve volunteers in their work. Until they begin to be important role models, practicing what they preach, they lack credibility, remain uneducated about the daily demands of volunteer management, and miss out on so many opportunities to do more, regardless of funding. Incidentally, this can also be true of VRMs.

Assumptions about professional networks of VRMs illustrate the clash of perspectives. What should be the role of a Volunteer Center in the formation or running of what generically are called – at least in the USA – local DOVIAs (Directors Of Volunteers In Agencies, the local networks of VRMs)? We can point to widely diverging models. In some communities, the Volunteer Center views the DOVIA as a program of the center; the center started it, provides administrative support, plans the programs, and, in other words, it’s a center service. At the other extreme, the DOVIA is totally the domain of the VRMs who are members, and the bylaws may even prohibit a Volunteer Center staff member from joining or serving on the board. In between are other operating agreements, ranging from full collaboration to uneasy co-existence.

The model in each community reflects the two parties’ attitudes about the other. VRMs deserve and need an association that is independent and self-led, just as any other profession has. But it ought to be of mutual interest for that association and the local Volunteer Center to join forces on mutual goals. A strong Volunteer Center welcomes a strong DOVIA because it doubles the voices advocating for volunteerism. A weak Volunteer Center perceives the DOVIA as somehow in competition, particularly for people who might pay for training. It is also a sign of weakness when VRMs look to their Volunteer Center to staff what ought to be an organization for, of, and by members of the profession.

Refocusing on Wider Audiences

Another reason for feelings of competition is that traditional volunteer-involving agencies and Volunteer Centers tend to operate in only a few areas of the volunteer world. Perhaps if Volunteer Centers can refocus their attention onto new constituencies, everyone will benefit.

In 1989, the United Way of America asked Susan to write a basic guide to Volunteer Centers, Volunteer Centers: Gearing Up for the 1990s (still in the Energize online library). What’s dismaying is how relevant the proposals – and vision – in the book remain today. For example, Susan delineated four major constituents of a Volunteer Center:

  • The SETTINGS in which volunteers work;
  • The SOURCES from which volunteers are drawn;
  • The LEADERS of volunteers; and
  • The VOLUNTEERS themselves.

These four constituencies, in turn, can be broken down into many discrete audiences and potential clients, which we’ve started to do below. It’s immediately apparent that only a very small number of these are presently receiving services from Volunteer Centers. Which clients are most Volunteer Centers serving now? Why or why not?

  • The SETTINGS in which volunteers work:
    • Nonprofits, yes. But also government/public agencies of all sorts. As well as some for-profit service providers.
    • Serving causes of every conceivable kind, not simply human services, healthcare, and education. The cultural and performing areas are a huge category, as are cause-centered volunteering such as environmentalism, animal protection, equal rights advocacy, and more.
    • Agencies already involving volunteers well; those struggling to do it right; and those not yet involving volunteers at all.
    • There are also settings that are not “agencies,” particularly faithcommunities, political parties, festivals, and events.
    • The all-volunteer world, including civic and service clubs, cooperatives of various sorts, auxiliaries and friends groups, and non-incorporated, all-volunteer associations.
    • Youth and adult organized sports programs.
    • Firefighting and emergency response organizations.
  • The SOURCES from which volunteers are drawn:
    • For-profit businesses with employee volunteer programs – and workplace programs in large or small nonprofits or government agencies, too.
    • Faith communities. They appear again here because they are both providers of volunteers to the community and engagers of volunteers in their own work and projects.
    • Schools, particularly service-learning programs. Can be from primary grades to graduate school, and publicly funded or private fee-paying. (Again, can receive the help of outside volunteers or can send their students and faculty out to volunteer in the community.)
    • The all-volunteer world is also a source of volunteers for any community project, where often mutual needs are met (the external agency gets help; the volunteer association engages their members as a team).
    • Mandated community service programs, such as time required by a court as part of sentencing, to obtain public assistance funds, or to graduate from school.
    • Full-time service participants, mostly subsidized to provide living expenses, which include national service programs, missionary projects, and some internships.
  • The LEADERS of volunteers:
    • Those who are paid and hold a title denoting their role as volunteer resources manager (VRM). They self-identify with volunteer management.
    • The many, many employees charged with responsibility for volunteer involvement, but only as one part of their job. These part-timers may or may not self-identify with volunteer management.
    • The executive directors of small agencies (who do everything anyway) or those without a designated VRM.
    • The officers of an all-volunteer association, elected or appointed to chair and coordinate activities, and to recruit new members.
    • Individuals who serve as team leaders for a set of other volunteers working on particular projects.
    • Those with roles that really require volunteer management skills but who most often do not realize it. Key examples: clergy; political campaign managers; special events organizers.
  • The VOLUNTEERS themselves:
    • People currently volunteering.
    • People actively seeking volunteer opportunities.
    • People who are not yet aware of the potential of volunteering.
    • People in different demographics, leading to possible services to older volunteers, volunteers with disabilities, volunteering by job seekers, family volunteering, and much more.
    • Independent “mavericks” – people who, on their own, adopt a cause and fight for it. These volunteers may burn out or go on to be the founders of ongoing movements and organizations.

Most Volunteer Centers serve only a narrow slice of this huge pie. Why? Because the momentum is towards perceived funding, not necessarily to what needs to be done. So Volunteer Centers focus on nonprofit agencies, human services, corporate employee volunteer efforts, and other constituents already deeply engaged in volunteerism (albeit still in need of support and training). This is where many players and funders are, and so the Volunteer Center steps into the mix – not always with a clearly delineated role – and becomes competitive for money.

We would like to propose a reversal of the process. Volunteer Centers might determine priority needs and generate services to address those needs (probably underserved or even unrecognized now), elicit the demand for those services, and thereby be able to make a case for obtaining the money to provide them. In other words, go where the most important needs are and the money will follow.

We’ve appended Susan’s 25 Innovative Service Ideas for Volunteer Centers from her 1989 book. It’s amazing how these still contain the seeds for some viable and even exciting activities for Volunteer Centers around the globe. Most are directed at underserved constituents, or at resolving real-world problems the volunteer community faces. Most importantly, none of these compete with anything else, yet align perfectly with a mission of strengthening and expanding volunteerism.

A Vision for All of Us

In 1989, Susan expressed her vision of a Volunteer Center as:

  • A concept – an expression of a community-wide vision of volunteerism that is inclusive of people and causes;
  • A place – where diverse groups can meet in mutual concern for the support of volunteers; and
  • A focal point – for visibility and coordination of volunteer efforts.

Those Volunteer Centers which can put this vision into action have a future. They will not be competing with anyone. Rather, they will be shining a light on the best volunteering practices of their community and enlisting as many people as possible in widening the scope and effectiveness of community engagement.

So we think a great Volunteer Center:

  • Articulates the scope and vision of volunteerism to every audience.
  • Conveys the image of volunteering as something of true value, done by everyone.
  • Advocates for the best engagement of volunteer efforts and against the exploitation or mistreatment of volunteers when it occurs.
  • Models the effective involvement of volunteers by recruiting people to work for Center projects directly.
  • Does what single organizations and individual volunteers could not do alone by making sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Brings the most current volunteering trends and issues, as well as national and global perspectives, into its local community; and, in turn, shares the best of local volunteering practices to the larger field.
  • Is flexible enough to grab onto new opportunities to increase volunteering.
  • Works through and with community organizations to reach goals together.
  • Sees the forest for the trees.

Comments

Chris Reed / St John Ambulance / London

As someone who has cut their teeth in both a Volunteer Centre, as a project worker and a CEO and now in a national charity as Head of Volunteering I can understand and associate with the tensions you describe. When in the VC I was often frustrated with large national charities who, while operating in what we saw as 'our patch' would not engage with us. We were often desperate to find ways to help members of the local community to volunteer with the large household name charities.

Now, having sat on the other side of the fence for a number of years I understand why those charities didn't engage. The desire not to have to work with over 200 different independent organisations, the variations in quality and consistency are just some of the problems we face on the charity side.

The focus of any organisation, such as VCs, on geographical boundaries is also I would argue a key problem. Volunteers want to get involved in volunteering where it's convienient to them, charities want to make that as easy as possible and all too often VCs are unfortunately seen as a barrier to that involvement (often when they shouldn't be as many are extremely helpful and accomodating). Nevertheless projects are often funded in specific localities for specific people something which only makes this situation worse.

Unfortunately I'm not about to offer a range of answers, but I would like to say thank you to Rob and Susan for this very interesting debate.

Susan J, Ellis

You're welcome and thank you, Chris!

Rob and I would love to hear from other readers of this issue as well, since this is a conversation that deserves many perspectives.