Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Volunteer Management: Are we a profession or not?

Some of us have the audacity to call ourselves a profession. After all in some countries we have so called professional bodies for Volunteer management.

In a research paper from 2009 Debbie Haski-Leventhal states
“Management of volunteers is an occupation, that is, it is a job (usually a paid one) that is undertaken in an organisational context, usually in nonprofit organisations. In order for it to become a discrete
profession a few conditions have to exist.

Brint (1994) explained that a professionalization process usually occurs in five stages:

1. A group of people start to work in a required occupation, usually in full time paid work;
2. The group develops a union or an umbrella organisation for purposes of professional
socialisation, education and learning;
3. The group begins to look for ways to formally train its members;
The professionalisation process of volunteer management in Australia

4. The state/government may give some guidelines on who can work in the profession,
sometimes through licensing; and

5. An ethical code is developed to protect service recipients as well as the professional

Brint asserted that professions are based on related tasks, which have high demand in the work
market, and that in order to perform these tasks one has to be trained (usually in an higher education institute) so that access to the profession is not open to all. However, Brint explained that besides well-
known professions such as medicine, accounting and law which have all the above criteria, there are some more minor professions which have only some. Morris (1995) argues that a profession brings together skills and knowledge, high standards and ethical behaviour. It has to be based on a concrete body of knowledge, have professional standards and ethical guidelines."

The research paper is well worth a read and should be in fact required reading by board members and members of any professional bodies for Volunteer management. It can be found at this link


Haski-Leventhal Concludes in her paper:

“In the last two decades a new profession is emerging: management of volunteers. The body of knowledge which acts as the professional basis is being developed, and it now includes theoretical and practical aspects. The professional challenges are being acknowledged and coped with, through
the body of knowledge, training and networking. There are several professional associations worldwide; ethical codes are being written; and the opportunities to learn, train, and professionalise are greater than ever.

However, it is still an occupation that does not require any formal training or licensing, and almost anyone can become a volunteer manager. Although there are more and more people who see their profession as “volunteer managers” the mobility is still high. The developed body of knowledge,professional standards and ethical codes, are not well-known to all those who perform the task, and not every organisation encourages its volunteer managers to train and develop the necessary knowledge and skills. As there is no degree or postgraduate level training, but only TAFE level qualifications (or less), it is a para-profession.”

An interesting piece that elicited no response from our so called sector. We have only ourselves to blame when we cannot rise to the challenge of responding to such papers.

Do we all agree to the papers findings?

According to wikipedia “A profession arises when any trade or occupation transforms itself through "the development of formal qualifications based upon education, apprenticeship, and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights."

In the same wikipedia entry:

Characteristics of a profession

The list of characteristics that follows is extensive, but does not claim to include every characteristic that has ever been attributed to professions, nor do all of these features apply to every profession:

1.Skill based on theoretical knowledge: Professionals are assumed to have extensive theoretical knowledge (e.g. architecture, medicine, law, scripture) and to possess skills based on that knowledge that they are able to apply in practice.

2.Professional association: Professions usually have professional bodies organized by their members, which are intended to enhance the status of their members and have carefully controlled entrance requirements.

3.Extensive period of education: The most prestigious professions usually require at least three years[at university. Undertaking doctoral research can add a further 4–5 years to this period of education (for example, architecture generally requires 5 years of study, 2 years work experience and a further year of work related study before one can apply to become a chartered member. Architects generally become chartered in their late 20s early 30s and earn between 22 - 24k before tax in the United Kingdom).

4.Testing of competence: Before being admitted to membership of a professional body, there is a requirement to pass prescribed examinations that are based on mainly theoretical knowledge.

5.Institutional training: In addition to examinations, there is usually a requirement for a long period of institutionalized training where aspiring professionals acquire specified practical experience in some sort of trainee role before being recognized as a full member of a professional body. Continuous upgrading of skills through professional development is also mandatory these days.

6.Licensed practitioners: Professions seek to establish a register or membership so that only those individuals so licensed are recognized as bona fide.

7.Work autonomy: Professionals tend to retain control over their work, even when they are employed outside the profession in commercial or public organizations. They have also gained control over their own theoretical knowledge.

8.Code of professional conduct or ethics: Professional bodies usually have codes of conduct or ethics for their members and disciplinary procedures for those who infringe the rules.

9.Self-regulation: Professional bodies tend to insist that they should be self-regulating and independent from government. Professions tend to be policed and regulated by senior, respected practitioners and the most highly qualified members of the profession,

10.Public service and altruism: The earning of fees for services rendered can be defended because they are provided in the public interest, e.g. the work of doctors contributes to public health."

I ask you which attributes apply to the profession of Volunteer Management?
Let’s have a look at what Associations for Volunteer Management say in a few Countries

In Australia and New Zealand AAVAs Vision is as follows
“Volunteer Management as a profession whose vital role in society is valued and respected.”

While their Mission states

AAVA achieves its Vision by;
•Providing pathways for professional development,
•Creating opportunities for peer support,
•Advocating for the Volunteer Management profession,
•Developing strategic relationships with government, community and corporate sectors.

In the United states we have a few professional associations for our field.

The Association for Healthcare Volunteer Resource Professionals (AHVRP)
“A professional membership group of the American Hospital Association is the premier professional membership society for healthcare volunteer services, retail operations and related support services disciplines. AHVRP provides education, recognition for personal and professional achievements, national networking as well as affiliation and collaboration with the American Hospital Association on public policy and advocacy issues related to healthcare volunteer services and retail operations. AHVRP is the professional association of choice providing leadership to volunteers to ensure a safe health care community where all our members reach their full potential.”

Also In the Unites states “AL!VE (Association of Leaders in Volunteer Engagement) serves to enhance and sustain the spirit of volunteerism in America by fostering collaboration and networking, promoting professional development, and providing advocacy for leaders in community engagement."

In England we have the AVM :

The Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) is an independent body that aims to support, represent and champion people who manage volunteers in England regardless of field, discipline or sector. It has been set up by and for people who manage volunteers.

The AVM aims to:
•facilitate and support effective peer-to-peer networking of those involved in volunteer management locally, regionally and nationally
•campaign and speak out on issues that are key to people who manage volunteers
•develop information and good practice resources on volunteer management
If you manage, co-ordinate or administer volunteers or volunteer programmes, directly or indirectly, then this is the Association for you."

All well and good and from my viewing space they seem to be the one of the best associations for VM in the globe. However nowhere is their mention of a profession on their site until you come to this:

“Internationally, the need for developing volunteer managers has been recognised with professional associations for volunteer managers in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, Singapore and USA. There is also an International Volunteers Managers' Appreciation Day held on the 1st November each year. However there was no professional association for volunteer managers in England until the Association of Volunteer Managers was set up”

In Ireland we have PAVMI

Professional Association of Volunteer Managers Membership
The Professional Association of Volunteer Managers Ireland (PAVMI) is the network of managers, both voluntary and paid, who spend the majority of their time coordinating the work of volunteers.

Who is it for?

Anyone who manages or supports volunteers in a paid or unpaid capacity. Our members include full-time, part-time, paid and voluntary managers who work with anywhere from a handful to hundreds of volunteers in their work.

The aims of PAVMI are to:
•Provide mutual support
•Share knowledge and experience about good practice in volunteer management
•Provide a voice for the volunteer coordinator in Ireland
•Advocate for the development of accredited training courses and standardisation of career structures in volunteer management
•Develop national recognition for the work of professionals in the field of volunteer management.
•Promote best practice in volunteer management
•Develop infrastructure that will facilitate in opening lines of communication and sharing of information"

These are but a few examples but “professional” is a word being utilised regularly. I’ll actually leave you to look up the definition for para profession.

Are we a sector where almost anyone can become a volunteer manager?

I’ve had an interesting experience in the last few weeks. On one hand I am hearing people who are asking me about benchmarking wages in volunteer management. People who are saying they are worth more than they are paid etc and how do they advocate for themselves - Please pay attention to this “professional” bodies for volunteer management

On the other hand I’ve met coordinators and managers who tell me they are not in it for the money and that the recognition of volunteers is above all else.

If we are to aspire to be a profession what views do we need to be taking?

If we aspire to be a profession what do we need to be doing in regards to national qualifications and accreditation?

If we aspire to be a profession who needs to be benchmarking wages?

And the most challenging question of all – have we reached the tipping point where we care enough about the aforementioned questions

I say if we don’t reach that tipping point soon we will never be able to truly claim that we are a profession.

We won’t get anywhere unless we have a dialogue on these matters. Who is debating these topics? Let’s start with your “professional” association. Are they? Show me the dialogue debate and discussion.


  1. Hi DJ.

    A good piece, as ever.

    However, I'm not sure I agree with the idea that to become a profession volunteer management has to meet the standards set by others.

    For example, in other professions there are rarely any practitioners who are unpaid. Yet in volunteer management we have paid and unpaid practitioners of our art.

    I'd also contend that many who have fallen into this field rather than pursued it as a career from day one have become its biggest and brightest advocates. I think that's because of the passion they bring that goes beyond this being simply a job/career/profession for them. It is, perhaps, more of a vocation.

    I'd finally note that Brint's process is one that is 'usually' followed, in other words often but not always. And the definition of a professional can be as simple as just being paid.

    Still, much food for thought and debate.

  2. You have raised a chestnut DJ - a really big conker which deserves lots of attention.

    Except I don't go looking for answers to your question, Are we a Profession? I am more interested in promoting 'being professional' which is of a different order from becoming 'professionalised'. Come to my brief presentation at the Volunteering NZ conference to learn more!

    My experience in the evolution of Social Work professionalisation in New Zealand says it will take at least another ten years before Management of Volunteers achieves that status.

    Except Managers of Volunteers have a double hurdle, as you pointed out in your post of March 16:
    “The level of support and recognition given to volunteer management is directly proportional to the level of support and recognition given to volunteers.”

    When volunteers are patronised, patted on the head for their ‘good work’, when boards and committees and other agencies fail to see how volunteers are the life blood of their organisation and service delivery, it is small wonder that our ‘occupation’ struggles to gain ‘professional’ recognition.

    Better perhaps to find the 'best practice' models and give them the limelight instead of my groucher laments.

  3. Thanks for your comments Rob.

    you wrote

    "For example, in other professions there are rarely any practitioners who are unpaid. Yet in volunteer management we have paid and unpaid practitioners of our art."

    I'd love to know your thoughts on how this impacts our sector?

  4. Thank you Shindig for your response. I look forward to 2021 but am so glad tere are people like you working hard to make that date come sooner


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