October 5, 2014

A Coming of Age?

Posted in Best Practice, Leadership, Leading Volunteers, Managing Change, Managing Volunteers, Organisation responsibilities, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 9:53 pm by Sue Hine

images[6] (2)I’ve seen a few job vacancies lately, opportunities that make me sit up and take notice. These are senior positions in national organisations, charged with strategic management and development of volunteer programmes.

Words and phrases like ‘leadership’ and ‘integrating volunteer work with service delivery’ and ‘best practice processes and resources to maximise voluntary service’ leap out of the published blurbs. These jobs are close to Executive Team level, offering opportunities to lift the profile of volunteering and its contribution to organisation operations.  Candidates are expected to competent in strategic planning and project implementation, and in leading transformational change.  Being able to undertake surveys and analysis could be useful too.  And of course, being experienced in developing and maintaining good relationships with both internal and external stakeholders is another given.

Yay! Management of volunteers has come of age!  At last, there is recognition for the rightful place of volunteering within organisations.  And yes, the relevance of strategic leadership, as outlined in Volunteering New Zealand’s Competencies for Managers of Volunteers, gets acknowledged.

And then I start looking at the fine print. What are the qualities and qualifications these organisations are expecting in candidates?  “A relevant tertiary qualification” can be anything from community development to health, including human resources and psychology.  Or in research and evaluation.  Or in ‘social services’, or management.  Take your pick.  Your experience is likely to count for more – say a minimum of four years in social service management. The list of desired experience includes leadership and people management.  Desired communication skills extend to coaching, conflict resolution and group facilitation.  While all these skills and experience are relevant and important, any reference to direct experience in managing volunteers is a lesser consideration.

By now you might be able to sense my raised eyebrows.

Yes, I know there are people out there with qualifications and experience that could foot any of these positions.

And yes, management is management, and leadership likewise, regardless of the field.

And yet, a toehold at executive management level is still precarious for volunteering.

Unless the executive team has their own experience of volunteering, unless they understand fully what volunteering is about, the new strategic manager is still in the position of advocating for volunteers, still arguing their cause and how to engage fully with them. That’s a hard road, where expectations and big ideals can get sidelined when the organisations are struggling to meet contract obligations and to secure funding to cover the shortfall.  It is even harder if the appointee is not steeped in volunteering philosophy and practice.

What if the new position is more about taking control and command of volunteering, ‘using’ volunteers as a utilitarian tool in service provision? That’s a risk, specially without direct experience of volunteering.  And volunteering will be the poorer for that.

Because at bottom there are big distinctions between working for pay and working as a volunteer. I need to earn a living, so a paid job is a necessity.  When I volunteer it is by choice, to follow an interest or to support a cause.  There are set hours for paid work; volunteer work can happen at all hours, including weekends.  Volunteers set their own ‘leave’ schedules; paid workers must apply to take time off.  Paid workers fit into designated positions, limited by organisation budgets; volunteers will be assigned to particular roles, but these are limitless.  Numbers of volunteers can outweigh paid staff 5:1 and more.

So there are big challenges for the person taking on an organisation’s strategic development of volunteering. How to meet the challenges is a story for another time.


  1. gisvc said,

    My thoughts bounced from total abuse of volunteers doing the job of paid staff to why shouldn’t there be volunteer roles like this available and a whole head fill of perception and attitude towards volunteering. Hard work for me for Monday Morning sue!


  2. Mike Feszczak said,

    Excellent article as always Sue. Experience counts for a lot, qualifications prove someone studied and regurgitated information at a particular time. Somehow I don’t think my executive team would want me too close to them with the influence that creates, I might just want to change a few more things……


  3. I love that you looked at the fine print, Sue. What does this mean? That volunteer management is finally being recognized as a valuable position? Or, is it more about an organization’s perceived need to “bring in the big minds” to shape up the volunteer department? While we in the field try to educate organizations on the changing landscape of volunteering, are we erroneously giving senior management reasons to doubt our abilities to adapt and change?
    Are volunteer managers finally being given credit or are they being pushed aside for sweeping ideas that, as you say, use “volunteers as a utilitarian tool in service provision?”


  4. Lee Jones said,

    Sue you are such a breath of fresh air. Telling it like it is. It is astonishing to me that so much of the nonprofit sector still does not fully appreciate the specific knowledge, skill set, and approach to volunteer management that is key to successful volunteer engagement and impact. The general sense that anyone can do it given they have some “relevant tertiary qualifications” still persists.


  5. Sue Hine said,

    Thanks for all comments and observations. It’s a big topic, one we keep on working at, without seeming to make any headway. That’s a worry in itself. I rather like Mike’s inference, that a bit of guile can allow us to run an innovative volunteer programme free of executive influence. But it’s also risky, if senior management spots the good in volunteering and decides to harness it for their own ends. That’s why we have to continue honing our marketing skills, to sell the distinctiveness of volunteers, and how they can be truly strategic for the organisation. And remind them that managers of volunteers Know How, and Can Do.


  6. Jane said,

    I am someone who is part of the executive or leadership team and who inherited a position and portfolio that holds volunteering in huge respect. The legacy I inherited and one I intend to hand on is one of advocacy, passion, integrity and stewardship. Most activities at North Haven have volunteer involvement. The style of thinking and management for MVS mean we are very well suited to the leadership team and can provide significantly broad viewpoints. We know passion.
    I am glad to read in your article Sue that new positions are acknowledging this, let’s hope the pay rate is increasing too, ‘cos that is an area of great need.


    • Sue Hine said,

      Hurrah! Thanks Jane for showing how a senior position is working well for a manager of volunteers. I would hope your structure and values is something other organisations can learn from and emulate.


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