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Passion, Not Mimicry

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Rob distinctly remembers the moment his heart sank.

It must have been about 2007 in a university lecture theatre in London. The organisation he then worked for, Volunteering England, had just launched a new professional development program for leaders and managers of volunteers. A colleague leading the work asked a roomful of event participants to discuss the significant issues they thought volunteer managers faced ‘today.’

The audience’s answers were intelligent and well considered, but Rob quickly realized that the responses were no different from what a similar gathering would have said 10 years previously. In short, it seemed the profession of volunteer management hadn’t progressed at all over the last decade.

Now another decade has gone by, and it seems as if our profession is still stuck at the same stage of development. How are we ever going to succeed if we cannot collectively overcome the challenges that continue to dog us in our field?

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same levels of thinking we were at when we created them.  — Albert Einstein

We recently discussed the forthcoming National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership in St. Paul, MN, USA. We will both attend the summit, and share a passion for this to be more than just a pleasant gathering of leaders and managers of volunteers. We want the event to be a catalyst for change in our field. We want people to leave inspired to be advocates for our profession, so that in another 10 years the issues we face will not be the same as those we struggle with today.

This goal is relevant to any gathering of our colleagues around the world. Conferences, seminars, workshops, networking meetings—all should in some way inspire us to change, to develop our professional skills so we can advance not just our organisations but our profession itself. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the noted French writer and poet, once said: "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."        

But how do we move from this aspiration to new action?

Changing the Questions We Ask

An article by Mark Manson, “3 Things School Taught You Without You Even Realizing It,” gives a new perspective. Manson writes: “Our system is performance-based and not purpose-based. It teaches mimicry and not passion.” Add this thought to Einstein’s reflection on needing new thinking to tackle old problems and we might break the cycle of repetition.

One of the most frequent questions that volunteer resources managers (and their bosses!) ask of consultants and trainers like us is, “What do other organizations do to handle this task or issue?” This sounds logical, because no one wants to re-invent the square wheel. But too often the question is merely a search for a quick-fix solution. “If we can just identify another organization that is doing it well, then we can copy what they do and we’ll solve the problem we have.”

We have already noted this desire to copy the work of others in a Points of View we wrote in 2015, “Is There a Template I Can Use?” and Other Questions Asked Too Often. Whilst learning from others is of course a good thing, just seeking to copy and paste a solution from one organisation to another is not.

As just one example: How could a great volunteer policy document for a sports club be completely appropriate as a great volunteer policy for a group working with abused children? Instead of starting with what, we should first ask why. Before identifying and evaluating our performance-based activities, we must begin by being purpose-based.

Of course we need to attend workshops that explore what we do as leaders and managers of volunteers and increase our practical skills in doing those things well. But if this is all we seek, we are by default learning to mimic. Instead, we need to develop a passion for our work by committing to its purpose.

Let’s compare mimicry to passion in something like volunteer recruitment. Look at the questions in the left column below. They will be familiar – and could serve as an outline for 90 percent of the writing and training on recruiting. Then look at the right column. Can you see how examining the underlying issues changes how we might decide to do recruitment in new and, hopefully, more effective ways?

Mimicry Passion
  • Where have others been successful in finding volunteers?
  • How can I use Facebook to spread the word about volunteering?
  • How should I write a press release?
  • Who’s the best person to approach in a corporation for help in reaching the company’s employees with a volunteer opportunity?
  • What works with Millennials?
  • How do I overcome resistance to background check procedures?
  • Exactly who do we think would be the best volunteers for our organization/clients/work?
  • Why would these prospects want to join us? What might they not like? Should our answers lead to redesigning our volunteer position descriptions?
  • Where can we be sure to find the most qualified people (not just any “people”)?
  • Given that we think we’ll find the people we want in these places, what ways might we get their attention, even if it’s not a “traditional” type of recruitment pitch?

Can you see how the second column is rooted in defining the issues and then developing ideas to match the specifics of the situation? Rather than figuring out how to reproduce someone else’s techniques, suddenly new opportunities are opened up which are strategically targeted and even a bit more fun to pursue.

Note, of course, that this sort of start-from-the-beginning planning carries more risk than continuing techniques honed by others. It requires an openness to experiment and even to risk mistakes—which brings us back to the subject of our Points of View in the previous issue, “Mistakes and Failures Are Our Greatest Teachers: Do We Make the Most of Them?” Staying safe through mimicry limits what might be possible. Remember the turtle, who only makes progress when it sticks its neck out!

Passion and the Future of Our Profession

Of course, we should strive to do our work well and can learn a lot from what others are already doing. But, as we are both fond of saying, there’s a difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things right. Perhaps we need to spend more time clarifying the overall purpose of our work before we can discuss the how-to’s.

If we are stuck on the merry-go-round of decades of lack of respect for volunteers in general and our role as engagement leaders, getting “better” at doing the same things is unlikely to change anything. And it certainly wears us down. How do we re-ignite (or discover) our passion?

Here are a few starter questions that we might ask ourselves individually, in local networks of volunteer managers, and at larger professional gatherings. Remember that asking a question does not imply a positive or a negative answer. But we ought to make sure we can answer challenges to the status quo.

  • Without quoting a job description as a list of tasks, what is the role or purpose of a volunteer resources manager in an organization?
  • From a community perspective: If our positions were to be eliminated altogether—in any and all organizations—what would happen? If every organization suddenly had a person in charge of volunteer engagement, what would happen?
  • What are the top three reasons an organization should involve volunteers—other than getting low-cost help?
  • If we never assigned volunteers to “help the paid staff” do core work, what other roles could volunteers fill that still further the organization’s mission?
  • Why do we think the volunteer resources manager belongs on the organization’s management team and on strategic planning committees?
  • Since at the moment there are no university degrees in volunteer management, what do we think is the best way for someone to become professionally skilled in this work? And what’s the best way for someone to continue to grow in the job?
  • Are we ourselves role-modeling our commitment to the impact of volunteers by sharing the work of volunteer engagement with them? If not, what does this imply?
  • Can we make the case for raising the salaries (and status) of volunteer resources managers? Be specific.
  • Why should volunteer resources managers work Monday to Friday, 9-5, if many volunteers and often the people we serve are on a different schedule?
  • How do we define the word “volunteer” and how do we feel about the long list of other vocabulary that tends to separate other people resources away from us? What should we/can we do about this?
  • How can a professional association enable us to do more collectively than we each can do separately?
  • What does advocacy for our profession look like? To whom are we advocating?
  • What could we stop doing tomorrow that we have always thought as essential to our role?
  • What would we like to add to our role and why?

We think these sorts of questions have the potential to identify new ways of approaching our work and our professional development. We’re not sure yet what skills we’ll need or what the resulting game plan will look like. But it excites us to challenge ourselves. Certainly we will keep much of the “best practice” experience learned over many years, but we won’t be wedded to doing the same things in the same ways. We’ll listen to Einstein and get to a different level of thinking to solve the problems we face today.

In his 1988 book, Understanding Voluntary Organisations, Charles Handy advised: “Encourage experimentation, forgive mistakes, set goals rather than rules, reward energy and enthusiasm rather than passive conformity, and soon the problem will be to hold change in check.” Sounds like a recipe for passion to us.