October 16, 2011

Being Professional

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Best Practice, Professionalism at 4:26 am by Sue Hine

If last week’s effort has not started you thinking, let me whisper in your ear: what does it mean to ‘be professional’, and how will you know?

I have suggested some pointers already:

  • Being trained for the job via a formal qualification
  • Knowing about and applying a code of conduct and a code of ethics
  • Being open to ongoing learning – via seminars and workshops, and ‘supervision’

These might be important, but not altogether sufficient.  What else?

Susan J Ellis has been promoting professionalism in managing volunteers for more than thirty years.  In a 1997 Hot Topic she listed her criteria for being professional:

  • Professional association
  • Collective action
  • Literature
  • Education

She concluded:

“No one will buy you professional status. You either have it or you don’t. But it is different from competence on the job. It means affiliation with a field and a willingness to work together to build that field.”  [My emphasis]

Since then the evidence shows we have struggled to sustain professional associations.  Yes, there are plenty of training programmes, yet few managers where I come from are sporting a widely recognised accredited qualification.  Collective action?  Too often I am hearing about the ‘too busy / no time’ syndrome.

On the plus side, there is a growing accumulation of literature and published research, via (for example) UK’s Institute for Volunteer Research, Volunteering Australia’s Journal on Volunteering.  Yet these are more about volunteering than managing and leading volunteers, and much less about ‘being professional’.

I can learn about good practice principles and processes by tapping into websites like Volunteering England’s Good Practice Bank, or the huge catalogue of resources offered by Volunteer Canada.   I can follow various electronic newsletters and newsgroups that will keep me informed about the world of managing volunteers.  Or I can follow the bloggers, and there are plenty of people out there offering their wisdom or droll perspectives.  Maybe we are ‘the very model of a modern major-[manager]’, changing the criteria for a profession to meet the conditions of working in the community and voluntary sectors, and we are demonstrating our affiliation with a field by doing it on-line.

Conditions like the range of job titles, the range of programmes offered (many with specialist interests), the range of responsibilities (size and scope of programme, numbers of volunteers) – all these make for a complexity not usually encountered in other professions.  Not to mention being paid or unpaid, employed full-time or part-time, and variations in organisational status.

By my reckoning managers of volunteers are still at the stage of asking questions like Who are we? What do we want? And how do we get there?  And then the real question:  “Does it matter?”

Well, I have never been one to follow prescriptive advice, but I do believe being professional does matter.  Because being professional relates closely to the quality of Volunteer Management: one size prescription of management tasks may not fit all organisations, but the quality of management does!

Of course ‘quality’, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.  And it is really difficult in something like managing volunteers, in all its variations, to put parameters around quality.

Here’s my stab at a list of factors critical to quality performance:

  • Knowing and understanding and living by one’s beliefs and values – because the original meaning of the verb ‘to profess’ was ‘to declare one’s beliefs and values’.  There is an inherent sense of vocation in what we do.
  • Knowing about ‘community’, and supporting the collective good of civil society.  There are a dozen different terms, and we can learn much about the meaning and practice of communal values from Maori and other indigenous cultures.
  • These two points lead to a third: the sharing of knowledge and practice principles with other agencies and organisations.  We may not have a
    codified body of knowledge like traditional professions, but we are surely keen to share experience and accumulated wisdom with others.

Get these lined up and presto, we have commitment to the field and a willingness to work together.

Earlier this year Susan Ellis laid down a challenge: Leaders of volunteers UNITE!  In New Zealand this week there is an opportunity to get involved when the AGM of Australasian Association of Volunteer Administrators takes place.  Every month there is a Volunteer Centre or a community collective near you running a workshop or a forum to share information and ideas.  Every month there will be somewhere, some sort of training on offer.  There is no excuse for remaining isolated or ignorant.  There is every encouragement to be proudly professional in our own way.

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