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Perspectives from Other Credentialing Stakeholders

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What do stakeholders from around the world have to say about credentialing? As it turns out, plenty.  In this Voices feature, e-Volunteerism presents a compilation of short, personal views from stakeholders in various fields - a diverse set of voices speaking out on everything from credentialing's "dark side" to the validation offered by certification and debating whether credentialing is even necessary.  Please join us and add your “voice,” too. 

What do stakeholders from around the world have to say about credentialing?  As it turns out, plenty. In this Voices feature, e-Volunteerism presents a compilation of brief, personal views from stakeholders in various volunteer fields – a diverse set of voices speaking out on everything from the “dark side” of credentialing to the validation offered by certification to debating whether credentialing is even necessary.  

  • Australian volunteerism advocate and pioneer Joy Noble shares her thoughts on the evolution of credentialing over her many years in the field.
  • UK volunteer management advocate Debbie Usiskin muses on whether or not credentialing is even needed. Coming from a previous employment background where credentialing was the norm, Usiskin raises some interesting personal views.
  • New Zealand-based Sue Kobar adds to the discussion by sharing her personal experiences of working through various credentialing processes while living for many years in the United States.
  • Meridian Swift from the USA has earned her CVA (Certified in Volunteer Administration) designation and discusses the validation which certification can offer.
  • Nancy Macduff, American volunteerism expert and advocate, offers the “dark side” of credentialing. In what is a well-crafted essay, Macduff questions whether the volunteer management profession is really any better off with credentialing.
  • Australian volunteer management leader Peter Heyworth expresses doubt about the true value of credentialing – or at least the process of credentialing
  • Sarah Elliston is an educator, coach and consultant in the United States and a CVA.  She regularly teaches a series of volunteer management classes and approaches the subject of credentialing from that university-based perspective.
  • New Zealand-based volunteerism blogger and agitator Sue Hine has the final word. Never one to be content with the status quo and always looking to push the envelope, Hine challenges us to consider whether certification actually leads to greater competence.

We trust that these personal insights inspire you to add your own experiences to those shared here:

Joy Noble

Accreditation of qualifications for managing volunteer programs provides recognition that the contribution of volunteers has come of age.   

How things have changed over the last 30 or so years!  At that time, despite the fact that so many organisations relied heavily on the work of volunteers, there were: no organisations devoted to volunteering; no referral centres; no training courses for people organising and supervising the volunteer workforce or for volunteers; no books on volunteer program management; and certainly no recognition of the need for accreditation of the position of managing the volunteer workforce.

In the early 1980s, a survey conducted by the South Australian Council for Social Services found that its members were becoming worried about the fact that their volunteer workforce was not being given the support of well-managed programs. This led to the formation of the Volunteer Centre of S.A. to conduct training courses which were extremely well attended and led to the Centre employing a person to concentrate on the training of people who were responsible for volunteers within their organisation. When the idea of a manual on volunteer management was conceived, there was no Australian literature to which one could refer. About the only written material we could find was by several American authors, including Marlene Wilson.

Time is an unrenewable resource. The time given by volunteers is huge, often given for altruistic reasons. To have wasted that time by failing to make good use of the skills and experience of volunteers is extremely regrettable, both for the volunteer, the organisation and the wider community.

The job of managing a volunteer workforce composed of people working shorter hours, with a wide range of skills and experience, is extremely difficult.  Planning, setting goals and priorities and leading are all required. The position can be more difficult than that required for managing the paid workforce.  

The economic value of volunteer labour is huge. Many organisations would not survive without it.  Ensuring that the best use is made of that labour is obviously required. It is essential that the volunteer manager, or volunteer program manager as I prefer to call the position, be well equipped to do the job.  

Qualifications of a diverse nature and provided by a recognised academic body are obviously necessary, and responsible organisations are now recognising this fact. Accreditation of the position is a must for the person, the organisation and wider community. Let’s celebrate how volunteering has come of age!  

Debbie Usiskin

This debate has sparked a huge reaction in the UK – not least because of the term ‘credentialing.’

I am going to ignore that aspect of discussion and instead will address three questions:

  • Why credit the work of volunteer managers?
  • What is and is not creditable?
  • What can be done to take it further?

I will be drawing on my experience as a manager of individual volunteers within an organisation, as a senior manager in a volunteer involving organisation with specific responsibility for managing the volunteering programme, and my practice as a freelance consultant to volunteer involving organisations and the observations that I have made.

I will also draw on what I have learned from my peers and colleagues in my time as a founder and Director of the Association of Volunteer Managers in England. And this, I guess, illustrates outright my position as someone who comes down on the yes side of the ‘should we credentialise?’ (or whatever word we choose to use) volunteer managers.

I must express a bias. In a previous life, I have been ‘credentialised.’ I have had an award proving my occupational competence has been measured – using a range of methods against a set of agreed standards. A post-graduate qualification was followed by a year of on the job training, then ongoing supervision and attendance at continuing professional development training days, with an annual review of membership. I am, of course, aware that none of this made me good at my job, but it did do something very important for me. Not only did it give me license to practice, it also gave me credibility and gravitas both within my employing organisation and also externally where a professional opinion was called upon.

The environment in which managers of volunteers operate in the UK is increasingly complex. Those in national organisations require an understanding of differences in practice and processes across all four countries – not to mention cultural differences. It is a challenge to: balance the lack of legislation directly relating to volunteers with the increasingly savvy volunteers; balance the risk-averse organisations with recommended good practice from the criminal records bureau; balance the demands and capacity of the organisation with the skills development needs of the volunteers; balance the long-term volunteering needs of the organisation with the short-term availability of volunteers; and, finally, balance all of this against the background of increased want and decreased investment. And managers of volunteers are expected to rise to these challenges.

However, in organisations where the managers of volunteers do not have a voice, do not have power or influence and who are unable to contribute to the setting of expectations and demands are likely to fail. I do believe that crediting managers of volunteers can ensure they have a voice and that they will be heard – because they have that credibility and gravitas that creditation brings.

However there is a big “but.” We seem to be awash with courses and awards in the management of volunteers. In fact, one could say that there are so many that the whole creditation system seems to be more meaningless than meaningful. Every training provider worth their salt (and many who are not) seem to be providing training around the management of volunteers. Many CEOs and trustees of organisations are keen to be credentialing their volunteer managers – especially in this current climate – and are enthusiastically booking their experienced managers on courses that are way below their skill and knowledge levels in the misbelieve that this will give them and their organisations enhanced credence (and increased funding).

At entry level, these very short and basic courses certainly have their uses, but do they really credit the work and worth of senior seasoned managers? And what do they contribute to the performance of senior managers in organisations aiming to strategise volunteering?

Some of the courses on offer, including some longer courses, have drawn on lessons to be learned from business, from managers in commercial organisations, from people who are experienced in managing people within a framework of occupational standards, with underlying legislative guidance, in an organisation that has a developmental ladder and system of reward. While I reiterate that there is probably something to learn from every scenario, this is not the same as managing volunteers and to credential someone for attending this type of course is almost insulting to the knowledge, skills and experience that most volunteer managers have already amassed.

And then there are the courses or training experiences that are accredited or verified by the providers, where there is a heavy commercial interest for the provider to pass everyone who attends to maintain the credibility of their training!

I would prefer to see a crediting system that has been designed, developed and owned by managers of volunteers. What would it consist of? Well I look around at my peers and colleagues and see that each has reached their current position via an entirely different path!

I express another bias – I believe the route that I took into volunteer management, and have taken since, works for me. I started in youth and community work, studied psychology, have a professional background in social work and counselling. Amongst other academic qualifications I have a Post-graduate Diploma in Management Studies and also an MA in Organisational Development – both of which were undertaken whilst already working as volunteer manager. So all of my research was based on that experience (with contributions from colleagues from all over the globe). I haven’t attended a two-day course on how to recruit volunteers which is run by someone who barely knows what a volunteer looks or smells like – am I credentiable?

In the increasingly complex arena in which we operate, which is more valuable – the two-day courses or the two-day-long opportunity to examine volunteering and the management of volunteers within the context of an accepted and widely understood theoretical framework? Both? Neither?

I think that there is no quick answer – much depends on what suits each individual learner, as well as what suits each organisation within which volunteer management matters. And of course, I have not even begun to address the credentialising of the hundreds of people who manage volunteers as an addition to an already heavy job role. Those people who do not see themselves as volunteer managers or who are not seen as volunteer managers by their employers, and who may therefore be reluctant to invest in any training in this field.

Sue Kobar

Discussion around the professional development for managers of volunteer services has taken many forms over the years. It is exciting to see this discussion now focus on credentialing. There appears to be a huge debate as to whether we need ‘it’ and, if yes, in what form.  Depending on whom you ask, the response varies greatly. Regardless of what a person’s philosophy is towards credentialing it would be hard not to be enthusiastic about the future direction of volunteer leadership.

It is exciting to live in a country (New Zealand) where there is an unleashed desire to advance the profession. Those involved have recognised that this will take time and once launched, they understand that evaluation is critical to success. However, it is equally important to recognise that not everyone will want to be “credentialed.” Is that okay? Yes!

I believe educating up is a personal decision and the more options available the better. When I decided to pursue a certificate in volunteer management, it followed the completion of my Bachelors degree. It was important to me to continue my education with a focus directly on my chosen profession. Would I do it again? Absolutely. It isn’t realistic to expect that everyone will be inspired to complete credited or non-credited courses. However, if we strive for the best academic practice possible I believe there will be a high level of interest.  

I achieved my Volunteer Management Certificate through Washington State University and, while the course is no longer offered, I valued the time I spent to complete the modules and earn the certificate.  What I loved most about the experience was being challenged at my level of experience, and that the course was available online. This was a number of years ago when online learning was fairly new and yet it worked well. I was impressed by the qualified faculty who had the required skills associated to each area of instruction. Being experienced in your field doesn’t necessarily equate to being a good instructor.

Several years later, I was given the opportunity to co-write the Certificate in Volunteer Management that Hawaii offered through the Volunteer Resource Centre. This was an incredible experience and involved faculty from the University of Hawaii who provided the academic oversight that was needed to develop something worthwhile and of value. Collaboration is essential for success, along with a stringent ongoing evaluation process. The long-term success of what was developed is evident through the continued level of participation. 

What I don’t like is the written exam approach to learning. Now some may say that is because I didn’t pass the exam for one of the certificate programs available. However, I would argue that the Volunteer Resource Centre of Hawaii’s certificate is a model that promotes adult learning at its very best and without an exam. Combining “head, heart and hands” - the intellectual, the emotional and the experiential learning that solidifies knowledge into heartfelt actions –  the certificate encompasses concepts that are true to the spirit of volunteerism throughout the world.

When I look at professional development for myself, it is always around resources, support, skill building and networking.  hose of us who have been in this career for a while have a wide range of skills and experiences to share.  It would be exciting to see a formal mentoring program where new managers are offered the opportunity to connect. This can only enhance what is offered through the volunteer centres and doesn’t duplicate what’s in place. I believe that there will be a time when those hiring Managers of Volunteer Services will require some form of formal qualification. Whether it is through classroom or online, credit or non-credit learning, there is a responsibility to develop our skills so that we provide excellence in service to those willing to give us their time. Yes, credentialing is important.

Meridian Swift

I’ve had my CVA credentials since 2005.  And every time I tell those who ask me what the letters “CVA” stand for, they invariably look completely confused or they quickly say “that’s nice” and move on. I usually get the feeling they would pat me on the head, too, if they could get away with it. While credentialing is an important step in defining and standardizing the management of volunteers, I think there is a bigger issue in play.

Imagine a friend of yours calling you up to announce that she just received her R.N. or another friend told you that after two years of training, he was about to become a certified airplane mechanic. You would be thrilled for them, because we all know how important and difficult those two professions are. Now imagine a friend of yours calling to say that after many hours of study, she was becoming a certified dog walker. What would your reaction be, if you are brutally honest? Would it be, “you need certification for that?”or would you be genuinely impressed? If you said you would be impressed, I want you for my friend.

The difference between dog walker and Registered Nurse or airplane mechanic is that we view the latter two as professions. A dog walker is a job and one that we all think should be an entry level position or something to do part time for fun. Dog walkers are not respected as professionals. Sadly, volunteer managers suffer from the same misconception: Working with volunteers is not a profession, it’s a job. It’s a job that gets filled by people whose main qualification is that they are nice!

We can have all the initials after our names that we want, but until our profession is treated as a profession, certification will not hold much weight. It behooves us all to elevate managing volunteers to a respected rung on the nonprofit ladder. Educating our organizations and the community about not only the benefits, but also the challenges of managing a volunteer force is key to garnering respect. The message that volunteers bring donated services that greatly enhance our organizations’ image and ability to provide must include speaking about the complex skill set required to attract, place and retain these donated services. The message must ring loud and clear: Volunteer managers are nice, but first and foremost we are managers of human capital. In most organizations, we manage more and more diverse human capital than any manager of employees.

Perhaps we can start with the title, volunteer coordinator, which implies we have little to do except gather willing people together. Maybe we need to call ourselves Managers of Donated Services to elevate us with donation officers or even deem ourselves Directors of Human Capital. 

Most of us fiercely protect our volunteers and by doing so, hide behind-the-scenes challenges we continuously face. We make it seem easy which belies the complicated work we perform. I’m proud of my credentials and want to see any volunteer credentials be given the respect deserved, but simultaneously, my profession needs the respect of both the non profit community and working world or people will continue to ask, “you’re a certified what?”

Nancy Macduff

Let me share my thoughts on what I call “The Dark Side of Credentialing.”

Physicians, attorneys and accountants are certified. But, certification programs exist in a variety of less well-known occupations:

  • Crane operators
  • Technical Writers
  • Environmental Consultant
  • Fraud Examiner
  • Project Management (3)
  • Solid Waste Management

 Certification “is a designation earned to assure qualification to perform a job or task.”1 The certification is often based on credentials verifying an individual’s qualification, competence, or authority.  Frequently, credentials are issued by a third party with the authority to do so.  Examples of credentialing include diplomas, degrees, specialized training, peer review, etc.2

Certification for occupations has exploded since physicians in the early 1900s began their credentialing process.  As noted above, even the local trash collector can get a certificate.  How is the person seeking a professional certificate to determine whether a certificate is a measure of competency and has value?  So let me raise some pertinent questions for our field:

Do we need manager of volunteers’ professional certification?

There are those who argue that certifying or credentialing people never created Starbucks, Apple, YouTube, cars or a stellar volunteer program. Rather it is the home of the mediocre.  At a university commencement address, Hugh Nibley argued for the day of the amateur and pillories the University for creating the “child” of professionalism or certification.  He rants through examples from the Greek Sophists to the 20th Century, arguing that competency, creativity and qualification do not necessarily come from the “certified.” He cites the Age of Enlightenment as time when the most innovative learning was outside the world of those who were certified – the university! Competency was rampant in salons, coffee houses, societies and courts. It was the heyday of the amateur. He goes on to say that certification protects the mediocre.3

Real learning and competency, in Nibley’s view, does not come from professional certification. One could cite Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc. and Bill Gates of Microsoft, as those with no credentials who went on to great success and innovation. 

Are there administrators of volunteer programs without credentials who have outstanding programs? Are there those with credentials who are inept, at best? A “yes” answer to both those questions raises the “dark side” of credentialing. Why bother?  

Why certification?

While Nibley raises good points, the opposite opinion exists:

Certification is needed so that we can get the respect that other professionals get from other professionals. Get insulted if you wish. Until we have recognized credentials, we shall continue to be “jacks-of-all-trades.” This is not inherently bad, just not well respected. We must discard the “in the basement, next to the morgue” mentality so that our fellow professions can do the same.4

The administrator of volunteers is a “jack-of-all-trades.” To run an effective and successful program, he/she must be able to employ the skills of many professions requiring certification:  human resource management, statistical analysis, conflict resolution, marketing, human motivation, futuring and the list goes on. In an organization, the role of the administrator of volunteers is not simply misunderstood; there is often a total lack of knowledge on the part of other staff for what a volunteer manager does. 

A professional certificate has the effect of alerting others that “standards” exists for a person to carry out his/her job. And the holder of the certificate has successfully proven that he or she knows and is capable of carrying out those standards, such as they do in more familiar certificated professions.  However, one must consider whether all certifications are equal in measures of qualification, competency and authority.

Incorruptible certification?

In many occupations, more than one body offers certification. For example, if you are a project management professional, there are three certification options. This is also true with the administration of volunteers’ certificate programs.

Who offers such certification? Answer: Council of Certified Volunteer Administrators, the Volunteer Engagement and Leadership program of Portland State University, Florida Association of Volunteer Centers, the Association for Healthcare Volunteer Resource Professionals, Canadian Administrators of Volunteer Programs, Volunteering England, local associations of managers of volunteers, plus many more.  An Internet search will produce many sites offering “certification” in volunteer administration.

The definition of credentialing – “the person has demonstrated qualifications, competence, or authority” in the field5  –  implies that there is a body of observable information to be tested, demonstrated competencies and authority to act.  Does the certificate programs meet the requirements to certify those in the profession and take a step toward Nibley’s “school of the amateur,” credentialing which encourages creative leaps outside the norms?

It would seem that selecting a certificate program should meet several criteria:

  • The qualifications and credibility of the organization offering the certificate;
  • The opportunity to demonstrate qualification, competence and authority in the process of credentialing;
  • The opportunity during credentialing to create a salon of “amateurs” to further the creative development of the profession.

As an example, the Council of Certified Volunteer Administrators (CCVA) meets all the above criteria. CCVA publishes a book that outlines qualifications and competencies: it requires three years of experience prior to applying, it is accredited by an international body6 there is an examination;  and there is a requirement to reflect on practice in a substantive paper that demonstrates competence and authority. Candidates for the certificate are encouraged to form small supportive groups to study, exchange practices, and behave like “amateurs in the salon.”

The dark side of credentialing for administrators of volunteer programs is that not all certificates meet the three criteria set in the definition of credentialing, which leads to certification.  If the profession is to move forward professionally then candidates for certification need to seek certificates from those entities meeting the same standards as older professional groups, without losing Nibley’s spirit of the “amateur.”

1 Professional certification, Wikipedia, retrieved November 15, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_certification
2 Credential, Wikipedia, retrieved November 15, 2011 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credential
3 mortaddams. (April 18, 2010 7:04 AM). Message downloaded at http://ask.metafilter.com/151489/The-dark-side-of-professional-credentialing, November 15, 2011
4 Roman, Manny,  (June 2009) The Debate About Certification: The Few, the Proud, The Certified, Imaging Horizons, Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, Arlington, VA pg.48
5Professional certification, Wikipedia, retrieved November 15, 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_certification
6Institute for Credentialing Excellence, retrieved November 15, 2011 http://www.credentialingexcellence.org/

Peter Heyworth

The jury on credentialing is still out for me. Granted, we all have some sort of concept of what credentialing is. However, in discussing it, are we all on the same page, or even in the same book?

Essentially, I see that credentialing is the setting of a standard or level of competence, assessed by an external party, with some form of recognition being given at the end of the process. In this there is a lot of room for discussion.

I can see significant potential advantages and disadvantages, and in weighing these up, I believe credentialing can work, with a ‘BUT!’ Credentialing rises and falls on the quality of the program. Consider:

  • How it has been established, researched and the consultation process used;
  • The underlying philosophy – what is involved, and how is it structured;  
  • What standard is being promoted and who developed it;
  • Who is administering it? What are their qualifications and approaches?

My views on credentialing have been formed by a number of influences:

  • A strong commitment to the volunteer sector and ongoing sustainability;
  • Recognition that volunteer program management is a critical component of any volunteer program. Competent management will go a long way to ensuring the viability and sustainability of the volunteer sector;
  • Commitment to providing opportunities for professional development and education for volunteer managers;
  • Credentialing should be available and accessible to paid and unpaid leaders of volunteers.


In my experience, many organisations do not do volunteer program management well and, unfortunately, do not adequately resource the program or the manager. This stems from a range of reasons not under discussion here. Credentialing, if done well, should raise the profile of volunteer programs, as organisations will be encouraged to ask the right resourcing questions. ‘What sort of skill base do we need to help the program go the next level?’

In an ideal world, credentialing will at least encourage organisations in appointing someone with at a level of knowledge to suit the size of the program, but not exclude people coming into the profession.

We have high turnover in the VPM field. One reason for this is a lack of credibility and pathways to accredited education and professional development. In Australia, people can access nationally accredited qualifications from Certificate IV to Advanced Diploma specialising in volunteer management. These qualifications have encouraged people to stay in the sector longer. Credentialing, I believe, can have a similar outcome and encourage people to remain in the sector rather than leaving for a ‘better’ job.

Credentialing can provide a pathway for ongoing professional development and, if designed properly, can assist the ongoing development of the volunteer sector. 


One standard model will not fit all sectors. This is true in Australia, where sporting organisations operate differently from government, community services, or emergency services. Credentialing in some sectors may impose a management model that does not suit another sector.

I don’t believe credentialing is for everyone. For many it will be unnecessary or a waste of time; hence, I don’t believe it should be compulsory as in social work, for example. One of the strengths we currently enjoy is variety stemming from people ‘falling’ into the management of volunteer programs.

Some may suggest that credentialing will remove the spontaneous, activist element of volunteering. I don’t agree. Credentialing focuses on good management, e.g. ensuring ongoing compliance to legislation.

General comments

Credentialing can be abused – by assessors who water it down to a lowest common denominator to get people through, or by organisations that refuse employment to someone not meeting the standard.

Credentialing can be seen as either a stick or a carrot. Ideally, credentialing should recognise the work a person has done and their commitment to ongoing professionalism. This assists in providing a pathway for further development.

Credentialing means many things to many people. I do not believe it should be compulsory for everyone, but should be seen as an opportunity to assist an individual’s professional development.

I believe there is a place for credentialing, with the ‘BUT.’

Sarah Elliston

Since 1982, a credentialing program has existed in Cincinnati and has metamorphosed from all-day classes connected to institutes of higher learning to shorter classes with continuing education credits available. It has influenced the nonprofit staff who leads volunteer programs, as well as their bosses and colleagues.

I have been in this field for 30 years and have been lucky enough to be in an urban community that was developing a series of training classes when I arrived. Since 1981, these training classes have been connected to Northern Kentucky University for 10 years and then The Union Institute and University for 10 years, while being sponsored by United Way of Greater Cincinnati (UWGC). When UWGC realigned its priorities in 2003, the classes were picked up by a community resource, the Cincinnati Association of Volunteer Administrators (CAVA). Since then I have taught the classes as a consultant to CAVA. 

While few students actually earned academic credit for the classes, it did happen. Northern Kentucky University saw the value in having a class about volunteer management for people studying nonprofit management and included it in their graduate certificate program. Those students were geared towards other management positions in the nonprofit sector, and I agreed that it was important for them to know about the role of the volunteer program and their role as a manager in relation to the volunteer program. I taught the class for three quarters and enjoyed the “ah-ha” moments as students began to appreciate the enormity of the job of an administrator of volunteers. 

At the Union Institute and University, I became an adjunct for a number of students who took the classes in the series and then read some of the major texts in the field as well as doing an inquiry project geared to a specific program.  Again, most of these students were looking for careers in the nonprofit field and I found the opportunity to influence their future behavior with volunteers and volunteer coordinators quite stimulating.   By providing a certification program that earned academic credit, we have been able to invite the nonprofit community to respect and appreciate the role of the volunteer program in an organization.  By having participants earn credit even when they weren’t going to become volunteer administrators, we seeded the field, the harvest of which is how other staff would work volunteers and their Administrators. 

Since CAVA began to manage the training series, the classes were reduced to fit the changing environment.  Currently, participants who earn our certificate in Cincinnati attend 6 classes and over a period of the next five months develop and implement policies or procedures that they have identified in the classes. They write a paper documenting changes and the impact of the changes on their organization and their volunteers. They also provide a document from their supervisor or CEO reflecting knowledge of what the individual has done and the impact on the organization. By insisting on an impact statement, we have helped the volunteer administrator implement changes he or she wanted to do but might have postponed without our deadline. The requirement also helped each participant in his or her role within the organization by requiring someone in the management team to acknowledge the changes and their benefits. 

Feedback from the participants reveals that networking accounts for 50 percent of the benefit of the classes. The other benefits include: the opportunity to be part of the management team; being included in strategic planning instead of after the fact; being asked to participate in agency evaluations by clients as well as volunteers; and other activities that indicate a respect for the certificate that we offer. 

Another major success we have had is that most of the established organizations include certification in volunteer management as a requirement when hiring new volunteer administrators. When we award our certificate in volunteer management, we educate our graduates in the CVA program and encourage them to follow that path. 

We have many CVAs in the Cincinnati area today. They influence the community in numerous ways, most obviously in leading volunteer engagement programs that treat volunteers with respect. 

Sue Hine

We all know what a good volunteer programme looks like, don’t we?  We’ve got the basics down pat – the policies and the recruitment and training procedures. We know about rewarding volunteers, and reviewing their performance, and programme outcomes.  But knowing is one thing and doing is another. It is the doing that counts towards defining a competent manager / coordinator / leader of volunteers.

Getting a substantive definition of ‘competence’ is proving difficult.  Indeed, it is a term that troubles the wider management development sector, and gets a lot of press in the organisational and occupational literature.  In the present discussion on credentialing managers of volunteers the word ‘competence’ has become wreathed into a mesh of ‘practice standards, best practice principles, certification, qualifications, licensure and registration.’ The basic ‘knowledge, skills and attributes’ that got me a career in a range of positions has been buried inside a pit of managerial precepts and the terminology of professionalisation.

‘Being competent’ relates to actions and behaviours, to the doing of specific activities and tasks. Competency is therefore a judgement made by others of performance, via observed action and outcomes. So I have to ask, who decides on competency denotations, and on what basis? Who will undertake assessment of competence? And is it possible to identify competencies to cover all bases, for an occupation that is so diverse and with multiple interests?

Are the competencies for managing emergency service volunteers, for example, to be applied to parents who organise a school sports team for Saturday morning competition? Does the management of volunteers involved in a fundraising event require the same level of competence as running a telephone counselling service staffed by volunteers?  Is there a competency distinction between managers of government-funded programmes and those small local organisations focused on self-help where the leader is also a volunteer?  What about the tiers of national, regional and local organisations which will require different sets of competencies?  How should we determine competencies for working in culture-specific or cross-cultural contexts?  There are plenty more variables to nominate.

There are also plenty of competency frameworks to follow. The UK National Occupational Standards offer a complex array of standards applicable across sectors, including competencies and performance indicators.  The US-based Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration identifies five core competencies, claiming these are “a foundation for this profession, regardless of the setting or type of organization where volunteers are at work.”  Other sources suggest there might be eight1, or just four2. Or you can go for the commonsense approach adopted by Volunteer Maine3

And then consider the objections.

“There is little evidence that competency systems increase managerial effectiveness” says one writer4.  Research from John Hopkins University5 indicates people want better tools to measure qualitative impacts, less time-consuming measurement tools and tools with clearer definitions. There are also barriers to being competent6, including: the lack of organisational commitment to volunteers; little recognition of the management role or the knowledge and skills required; assigning ‘add-on’ responsibilities for volunteers to an existing manager; and the absence of support for professional development programmes. Competency frameworks are not going to make these barriers go away in a hurry.

Laurie Mook’s article in this issue introduces a typology of volunteer programme leaders, based on nonprofit experience and management credentials. “Each leader,” she says, “has a unique offering.” That’s the point, isn’t it? That there is more than one way to skin a cat? Or, as we have been saying in New Zealand for the last couple of years, “one size does not fit all.”

So please, do not apply a standardised straitjacket to competence for managing volunteers. Make room for innovation and enterprise. Understand the need for flexibility when times are a-changing in our communities and new generations of volunteers present with new expectations and a wide range of skills. Know that being creative could be the number one asset a manager of volunteers brings to the organisation.  And if you really want to know about the competence of your manager, go ask the volunteers.

1 Developing eight core competencies for successful volunteer programs, available at http://www.nationalserviceresources.org/practices/17723

2 Boyd, Barry, Identifying Competencies for Volunteer Administrators for the Coming Decade: a National Delphi Study, available at http://www.leadershipeducators.org/Resources/Documents/Conferences/Anchorage/boyd.pdf

3 Maine Commission for Community Service  (2008) Competencies for Managers of Volunteers; see also http://www.volunteermaine.org/volcomps/Professionalism/professionalism-2.html

4 Levenson et al, Measuring the Relationship between Managerial Competencies and Performance, available at http://jom.sagepub.com/content/32/3/360.short

5 Salamon, L, et al. (2011) Nonprofits, Innovation, and Performance Measurement: Separating Fact from Fiction, available at  http://ccss.jhu.edu/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2011/09/LP_Communique17_2010.pdf

6 Boyd, Ibid.


The one reflection that comes to mind here is whether competencies act as a straight-jacket for innovation.

It all depends on how they are designed. Competencies don't have to just define the skills and knowledge, they can also point towards the personal attributes that lie behind them. Here's a selection of competencies from the link below:

Managing the Customer Relationship
• Builds rapport by taking a real interest.
• Takes personal responsibility for resolving customer concerns.
Team Working
• Treats people with respect and integrity.
• Modifies position, where appropriate, to achieve a 'win-win'.
Leading Others
• Treats all staff as individuals, recognising and valuing diversity.
• Praises achievement and says 'thank you' for a job well done.
• Communicates business goals in a way which motivates staff.
Planning and Control
• Clarifies the responsibilities of self and others, avoiding duplication of activity and wasted effort.
Bringing Innovation to Problem Solving
• Encourages others to propose solutions to line management.
Making Change Work
• Encourages others to look at change positively.
Making Good Decisions
• Make responsible decisions, taking into account facts and feelings.
Attention to Detail
• Works within limits of authority, seeking guidance when unsure.
• Keeps an eye on the detail, checking own work for mistakes.

On another tack, it's interesting to review the list of personal qualities below, which were designed to encourage a climate of freedom balanced with discipline.

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."

I'm sure a well-designed set of volunteer management competencies can capture the essence of knowledge, skills and personal qualities that makes for a great manager of volunteers.

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