It’s a day with mixed feelings for me today – a little happy, a little sad, a lot reflective. Nov 5th is marked as International Volunteer Managers Day, to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of Managers of Volunteers, who work tirelessly to support and engage volunteers – see http://volunteermanagersday.org/. I love the line “volunteering does not succeed in a vacuum”, recognizing that Volunteer Managers play a critical role in providing ‘behind-the-scenes’ support to volunteers. Often, this support translates to internal advocacy, and Volunteer Managers speaking on behalf of volunteers to advocate for changes so that organizations are more accessible/welcoming and inclusive of volunteers. This is often the small but critical details that make or break the volunteer relationship – do volunteers have a space to work and a place to hang their coat? Do we have a budget to throw a Holiday party for volunteers instead of just for staff (or better yet, can we invite the volunteers to the staff holiday party?) Do are office volunteers have the information and access to codes needed to do meaningful work? Are volunteers involved in planning and decision making, or even consulted for feedback, when they have years more experience than paid staff?
This post in Energize by Susan Ellis is the best I’ve read about this day and reflects my concerns about this profession – http://www.energizeinc.com/hot/2013/13nov.php#!.
My sadness and reflection comes from my own personal journey, as someone who was a Volunteer Manager for 10 years and was completely passionate about the profession, to having now said goodbye to this career path (although I hope to continue to think and write about volunteer engagement and related themes for years to come). I have personally been volunteering and have worked with volunteers for most of my life, being inspired as a child by my Grandparents (I’ll save that story for another blog post). I landed my first formal Volunteer Manager job about 10 years ago, and jumped into the profession with both feet. I took all of the steps to becoming an expert in my field, joined the executive of my local Volunteer Manager Professional Association, wrote and published an article on volunteer management and community development, presented several workshops at volunteer conferences, and became certified as a CVA (Certified Volunteer Administrator), etc. etc. My career goal was to be a leader in volunteer management. I was 100% committed to this goal.
Here’s the catch: there are very few true leadership roles in Volunteer Management, at least in Toronto, Canada. I worked as a Volunteer Manager in two organizations, with my responsibilities being overall volunteer management – recruitment, retention, recognition, etc. While I thoroughly enjoyed both positions, after 8 years doing this work, I wanted to contribute at a leadership level, with a wider scope and a focus more on the strategic and less on the front-line day-to-day. I job searched for 2.5 years, and came up empty. I had interviews and came close to one job (down to myself and the successful candidate), but was not successful. And the interesting thing I learned through this whole process, was this: Leadership roles in Volunteer Management are not being filled by people who have experience in volunteer management! This is crazy but true, and sad. These positions are being filled by people from the corporate sector or if from non-profit, then expertise in fundraising. What other profession hires a “Senior Manager/Director of *blank*” with no experience in the subject matter? While Volunteer Managers are advocating to recognize the significant work of Volunteer Managers, non-profit leaders are unfortunately not buying it. A perfect (but sad) example is Volunteer Canada, who has just announced their new CEO, with no experience in volunteer management – http://volunteer.ca/content/new-ceo-announcement. Why is that? Because unfortunately, Volunteer Management experience is not seen as strategic, high level, leadership work.
I have shifted career paths and I’m happy with where I am – I am still passionate about volunteerism and volunteer engagement and my work allows me to integrate this passion with overall community development and program management skills. I very much value the amazing experience I had as a Volunteer Manager, and there are days where I miss some aspects of that work (and I especially miss working directly with amazing and inspiring volunteers). I don’t have a fixed career goal anymore, as that feels limiting, and I want to be open to where my path takes me. I wish that Volunteer Managers and volunteer engagement generally was more respected within the non-profit sector, as volunteerism is so immensely important. I will continue to speak out about this where I can and when I can, to keep the dialogue going. And last but not least, I will continue to actively volunteer and try to do my small part in making the world a better place.