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The Professional Responsibility to Have and Share Opinions

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Just recently, Rob had one of those conversations that sparked a long chain of thought. A colleague expressed the wish that professional associations for volunteer resource managers would ‘accredit’ volunteer management training in some formal way. The associations would vet and list ‘approved’ training providers so that their members would then be confident of hiring trainers who would deliver excellent learning experiences.

At face value, this seemed like a good idea. But, after further thought, Rob began to question both the appropriateness and the feasibility of the activity. He asked himself:

  • What is the value of accreditation and to whom? Is this meant to be an endorsement of basic competence or a recommendation of excellence?
     
  • Against what objective standards would the accreditation be done and do these standards relate to what makes for effective volunteer management?
     
  • Who accredits the accreditors? Is it sufficient that someone be a member of the professional association or would other criteria have to be met?
     
  • What if an organization or individual trainer is denied accreditation? Could this have legal repercussions in terms of affecting reputation and image?
     
  • More basically, should a volunteer-run professional association spend (probably a large amount of time) accrediting training providers—especially if there are other, higher priorities? And what about limited financial resources?
     
  • Aren’t there already other bodies whose purpose is accreditation of trainers and training? Might such groups be interested in adding volunteer management sessions to their list of reviewed subjects—so that the professional associations would spend time lobbying for such attention but ultimately would not have to reinvent accreditation itself?

Many years ago, Susan was actually involved in an attempt by the Association for Volunteer Administration to do something along the same lines. At the time, AVA’s certification program for volunteer resources managers required attendance at a certain number of continuing education sessions each year in order to remain certified; so it was decided that AVA should endorse relevant training. This endorsement was not meant as an assessment of quality, but rather approval that the training met certain basic criteria, particularly that the program would be taught by someone with legitimate credentials in volunteer management. It was up to the training sponsor to submit the paperwork applying for AVA endorsement.

What happened? Well, it was pretty time-consuming to administer, hard to promote among training providers, and—quite honestly—of dubious value to association members. But the intention was a good one: to help members find basic training and, possibly, to withhold endorsement from trainers who seemed to simply add “and volunteers” to any subject with no real expertise in what volunteer management is.

A Different and Feasible Approach

Rob pretty quickly decided that the negatives outweighed the positives in the proposal for a professional association to get into the accreditation business. However, he agreed with the need underlying the suggestion: volunteer resources managers would benefit from some way to assess if an offered training program has merit. So he came up with a better question: How could professional associations help identify good training opportunities in a way that was different from formal accreditation?

Rob’s idea is modelled on such consumer review sites as TripAdvisor, Yelp!, and Amazon customer reviews. Associations could use their existing Web sites to create a forum through which volunteer managers can rate and remark on any type of resources they encounter (training, journals, books, whatever). More than a general discussion board, the site could offer a rating form with standard questions and then organize submissions by type and name of resource so that users could easily find opinions when they need them. This informal approach would be much more cost- and time-efficient than an attempt at accreditation; the professional association would simply need to moderate the posts, following some basic rules not unlike those used when people post to discussion groups online.

Most importantly, it would empower the members of professional associations to have a say in who supplies the best training and development services for the field.

The Power of Publicly Shared Opinions

As the two of us discussed this issue, we saw its broader implications. Shouldn’t organisations that support people who lead and manage volunteers be doing more in general to empower their members? Just as we empower our volunteers, shouldn’t our associations empower us? Wouldn’t that move our field forward more quickly and effectively than it is doing right now?

Our Australian colleague and editorial team member, Andy Fryar, has an excellent presentation that’s all about the development of our profession. In it, Andy says this:

When I talk about the evolution of volunteer management, I talk about how historically we have evolved from being a ‘people profession’ to a ‘paper profession’. An evolution that moved us away from primarily having a focus on the volunteer to one where our focus is now on the process. For a while, we had this balance right. But in my opinion, we have now gone too far. It’s time for a new evolutionary direction. We need to find ways to become a ‘persuasive’ profession! We need to learn to influence, to develop key relationships, instead of simply just adding another volunteer to the team.

Andy is talking here about individual volunteer managers within their organisations, but the principle applies equally to our field as a whole. If we want to evolve to the next level as a profession, we have to become more persuasive, to influence and develop key relationships. And we need the courage and the tools to speak out.

Opinion Cartoon

Right now, the majority of places we can find opinions is in postings, especially blogs, written by consultants and trainers in volunteerism. For example, this quarterly spot in e-Volunteerism is called Points of View. We actually express some! And you, the readers, have a way to respond with your views and opinions. To us, this is a form of professionalism.

When was the last time you read anything critical or controversial—or taking a stand against something—on a national organization’s site? On a professional association’s site?

Granted, professional associations and peak bodies cannot do it all. They have limited resources and competing demands on their time. Also, it’s disturbing how hard it is to get volunteer resource managers to respond to anything publicly (we are well aware that we have not successfully moved our readers to post comments here in this journal, too). If we can empower our colleagues to take individual responsibility and risk speaking out, we could make professional progress much faster.

Voicing Individual Opinions

What can each and every member of our profession do to move our field forward?

First, each of us needs to make a commitment to volunteerism and to volunteer resources management as a career and not just a job. It has to matter to you enough to care about issues and want to contribute to addressing them. Once you have the conviction, believe in the power of the keyboard! Speak out in any number of ways:

  • Participate in forums available to you already, such as Thoughtful Thursdays. Do you really not have time to write 140 character tweets?
     
  • Similarly, respond to blog posts, journal articles, and other writing that welcomes reader comments. After all, we bet that you read the comments of others (you know you do). Give someone else a new opinion to read.
     
  • Write letters to the editor (or web master or newsroom chief) in response to any news item that links to volunteering. Praise excellent coverage (which is a way to spread good ideas). Call out stereotypes and inaccuracies. Suggest alternative points of view. Right now, most media coverage of volunteer-related stories appear as filler or ‘good news’ fluff. Few readers/viewers give feedback. Let’s start.
     
  • Respond to social media stories involving volunteers or volunteer managers. Again, say bravo when something good is shared. Support an expressed opinion if you share it or post an opposing view.
     
  • Post your own story about volunteers or your concern about something affecting volunteers on your Facebook or LinkedIn page.
     
  • Don’t just join online groups, participate! Waiting for other members to post something only means no one posts (except perhaps the moderator), which eventually leads to a group in name only. And if a colleague takes the plunge and shares something, respond!

Writing is not the only way to contribute to building our profession. Take every opportunity to educate others. Consider these avenues:

  • Present information on the impact of volunteers, call attention to inaccurate statements about volunteers, and start thoughtful discussions about how volunteer involvement can be even more important in your organization.
     
  • Respond to requests for proposals to present at conferences. Remember: You don’t have to be an expert or even a trainer. Propose a critical discussion topic and run the session to surface opinions.
     
  • Accept nomination to a board position for your local professional association of volunteer managers or chair a committee or join the board of another non-profit as the volunteer ‘expert.’Advocate for more involvement of members and interaction with a wider public.
     
  • Reach out to other professional organizations—social workers, teachers, human resources folks—and offer to exchange presentations. This lets you explain volunteer management to the people with whom we work every day yet who never learn the basics of what we do.

Conclusion

OK. We’ll stop now. Our intent is not to exhort you or instill guilt (well, maybe a tiny bit). We truly believe that a strong profession advocates for its beliefs and that members of that profession should take opportunities to express their educated opinions. We’ve shared a lot of ideas for how to do that and many are not overwhelmingly difficult or time consuming.

Want to start with a comment here? Let’s talk.

Comments

I enjoyed reading this article, especially when surfacing the chagrin I feel in putting aside CVA paperwork time after time. I've been doing volunteer engagement for a while now and have finally given myself permission to say, "This is it - this is my calling" instead of hemming and hawing about having left bench science blah blah blah.
Do I feel less professional for not having received a certification? No and emphatically so. Am I constantly looking for new pathways to understanding? Absolutely. (I've been receiving the HBR Management Tip of the Day, for example)

For those of you seeking opportunities to practice voicing your thoughts and opinions, let me know if you have something you'd like to share. The hardest part is getting a second pair of eyes on your work to offer feedback and catch that niggling typo. I'd love to hear from you. (Susan, et. al. should I post my contact info here?)

Hi, Dierdre -- what a wonderful offer to others!  You are quite right that some people would really benefit from a writing mentor. Great idea!

Here's Dierdre's e-mail address, for those of you who want to give her this volunteer opportunity: daraujo@exploratorium.edu

Best, Susan

Amen to all of the above. Going public with opinions, peer group discussions, educating upward, outwards and in all directions – these are the ways to go. And here’s the thing: if we have learned to ‘market’ volunteer opportunities, it’s but a short step to ‘marketing’ the importance of professional development in managing volunteers.

Inspiration is at hand in Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, described as ‘a short, elegant, passionate polemic on the history and future of progressive political engagement’. Because promoting our profession is a kind of political engagement, and if not at the same level as current US protesting, the principles are the same. Look for the small steps; tell the stories; instead of seeking perfection go for collectives and collaboration; and create a melting pot of ideas and actions. That’s the Solnit message.

Kia kaha! (New Zealand Māori phrase meaning ‘be strong / get stuck in / keep going’)

HAH! Rebecca Solnit is one of our local treasures

Susan and Rob hit the nail on the head! I have been in this business for so long, I have begun to deduct years from the total so that I don't seem so old! Professional Volunteer Management as a career and proper training have been flags I have waved from the beginning. It does seem that solid training on Volunteer Management is hard to find without paying a lot of money or traveling long distances. I wonder if it is the same old problem of volunteer managers within agencies not getting the support and respect they deserve as the people who (behind the scenes) keep agencies running with well-trained and committed volunteers. My peers in North Texas are committed to making sure that VM professionals in this area have access to quality training, but I know that those in more remote areas struggle to do so.

I too had a conversation with Rob about this. It is a topic that I feel strongly about, and also feel strongly that it is a topic in which the UK based Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) has a part to play. I am pleased that you have highlighted the questions that occurred to you along the way and thinking about these is certainly helping me to change my thinking.
The training landscape here has a mix of training providers - non profit to profit making and the verifying/accrediting landscape is also varied which can mean it is complicated to decide which course to do.
I feel that as a minimum the performance standards against which training should be designed and delivered should be co-developed with (or by) volunteer managers. My preference is that training should be delivered by people who 'get' volunteering and volunteer engagement. And yes, my thinking has changed since reading this article and pondering tehse questions!
AVM have made a start by identifying an ethical stance on volunteer engament as a profession and we are working with other lead bodies and our members to take this forward. If you are a member, and are interested do please get in touch.
Meanwhile, my change of thinking is why it is important to share our thoughts with one another so do please blog, post and comment away who knows I may even change my mind again!

In response to sharing opinions:

It can be scary to participate, especially when you know that 'experts' are reading, listening or watching and you don't feel like an expert.

It can be hard to share an opinion or make a comment (online or at an event)when you're concerned you might get rounded on by someone who disagrees with you (social media shows us this happens). Some of us are restricted by organisational social media policies that prevent us from commenting publically while representing the organisation: and even if we try to disassociate ourselves, unless we are completely anonymous where we work can be found out.

Some of us just haven't properly formed our opinions, as we're slower thinkers, and by the time we have, someone else has voiced it, so we're worried we will look like we're jumping on the bandwagon.

Some of us are worried that if we tweet or blog something it's going to get shared wider than we thought, and is going to get a bit out of control.

I am trying to be more brave about sharing thoughts. They're a bit rough and ready at times, can be a bit off the cuff and may need qualifying after as I don't always get the right words first time.

Jo- I echo Chris' piece about the generosity and community within the profession. Don't forget that becoming a mentee and the face-to-face conversations around the table are just as critical to developing yourself and the profession as more public activities.

Jo, everyone has to start somewhere, even the experts did :-), but you're right you do sometimes have to be brave. That said I think we find ourselves in a sector where on the whole people tend to conduct themselves pretty well and are really supportive. Perhaps stick to less 'public' social media to build some confidence and if things are a bit off the cuff, just say so, in the same way you can say that what you write are your personal opinions. Unless you're actively campaigning against your employer organization that should be fine.

So I have to confess, Rob and I were chatting earlier this month and he said I should look out for this article and I'm glad I did! While I know the people v process debate wasn't the central point of this article I love the quote from Andy, it's so true in so many ways, but as I thought about it I thought hold on a minute... The vast majority of volunteer management happens in very small local organisations and many of them are lucky to have a written constitution, let alone a recruitment process or an application form! This for me is something it's important for professional bodies to remember.

I'm on the Board of the UK Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) and this is something I regularly bring up. We need to remember that sometimes we can be distracted by the larger organisations in our sector at the expense of those where the majority of volunteering actually happens! Nevertheless pretty much everything the two of you have said here rings true for the small scale as well as the large scale volunteer manager, the difference is the context. Colleagues in small local groups will be networked within their local community. The tennis club will know people at and engage with the football club, all the clubs will engage with their local authority (councils etc). Many individuals will serve on the management committees of multiple organisations. They will organize stuff and get stuff done, however they probably won't be reading this and they probably won't see themselves as a volunteer managers!

But, does that matter?????