May 25, 2014

Professionalism, Again

Posted in Professional Development, Professionalism tagged , , , at 4:37 am by Sue Hine

search_for_professionalism_wallpaper_by_sspssp-d4ulzbbFrom time to time over past decades flags have been waved about professionalism in managers of volunteers.  Country-wide and regional associations to promote the profession have been founded, and foundered.  Certification and credentials and National Standards have struggled to gain a foothold.  In New Zealand we have developed Best Practice Guidelines, and a Competency pathway, as a means to support managers of volunteers and to gain recognition of their roles.  Now UK’s Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) is generating a renewed discussion on professionalism.  Here’s an opening paragraph on the context for the arguments:

Under pressure, not least from an economic crisis, volunteering’s changing. Its social value is increasingly seen in economic terms. Volunteering’s formal side is eclipsing its informal side and redefining what it means to volunteer in the process. In the midst of this change, moves to professionalise the development of volunteering face greater scrutiny. Rethinking what it means to be a professional offers us a route to rebalance and reevaluate volunteering’s role in today’s society.

More recent presentations have covered a case for a Code of Practice; distinctions between a job, an occupation and a profession; and some of the questions and risks that need to be discussed.

I have been down this road before.  Twenty-five years ago I was embroiled in debates about registration for social workers in New Zealand.  University level programmes had been going for some years, offering academic credentials; a national association was active with newsletters and a quarterly journal.  But the arguments on professionalising were about competence and performance appraisal.  (I’ve still got the documents, typed in Courier font before the days of computers.)  For social workers in government welfare agencies there were statutory responsibilities to worry about; in the health sector social workers were more concerned with raising their status to the level of other Allied Health professionals.  Compared with the current position of management of volunteers, social work at this time was streets ahead in developing professional credibility.

I bowed out of the debate, gave up membership of the association, and have never submitted to assessment for registration – in part because I moved to some different fields of work, rather as managers of volunteers will do.  Mostly I gave up because being professional was far more important to me than professionalisation.

Professionalisation is a formal process to gain status and credentials, to ensure standards of practice can be maintained.  Trouble is, elements of exclusiveness can creep in, and it would be mighty difficult to establish a comprehensive code of practice that would cover all contexts that engage managers of volunteers.  See here for an outline of potential consequences of this form of professionalisation.   As we have been saying in New Zealand for several years, one size does not fit all.

Being professional, on the other hand, is about demonstrating a set of beliefs and values in behaviour.  That’s why the art of managing volunteers includes such emphasis on communication and relationships with volunteers, paid staff and management, with the wider community, and in support and appreciation and recognition of volunteer work.   That’s why we work hard at advocating for volunteers and volunteering – and there’s an art in doing that effectively too.  Being professional connotes the integrity of our work, a wholeness that comes from articulating beliefs about volunteering and communities, and in acting on those beliefs.

Being professional in this sense is about leadership and personal characteristics.  It is different from the administrative and management processes of establishing and maintaining a volunteer programme.  These elements can be clearly defined and applied; leadership is the behavioural style of application.

Professionalism in management of volunteers does not fall easily into conventional patterns of professional status.  There is no exclusive knowledge base, and our practice skills are not so different from those required in other management positions.  There are any number of training and experience routes that bring us to appointment as a manager of volunteers, and there are even more variations in volunteering and volunteer programmes.  And, there is no formal career path to follow.

Susan Ellis wrote way back in 1997:

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.

A professional association can offer a defined set of ethical principles related to management roles and some form of accountability for abiding by those principles.  A professional association also has the potential to take collective action, speaking out on controversial issues outside the constraints of our employing organisations.  Real professions, says Susan Ellis, have strong associations.  I maintain my membership in the Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers (AAMoV) on the basis of these expectations.

Because, to paraphrase a quote from a long-ago text* on professionalism in social work:

Management of volunteers without service would be lame, without values would be blind, and without professional association will be mute.

……………..

*Toren, Nina  (1972) Social Work: the Case of a Semi-Profession  Sage Publications.

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