Friday, October 14, 2011

Erin Barnhart: "true facilitators of democratic action"

Erin Barnhart is an internationally recognized expert in domestic and international service and volunteer engagement. She has been quoted by such media sources as, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York Post, The Boston Globe, Smart Money, Marie Claire, and Budget Travel and has developed and delivered effective engagement tools, trainings, and resources for volunteers, volunteer resource managers, and organizations worldwide.

An AmeriCorps*NCCC alum, Erin has an MPA in Public Policy and a Graduate Certificate in Not-for-Profit Management from the University of Oregon. Following completion of her Masters Degree, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Canada to study volunteer centers (PDF) in British Columbia and the Yukon. In 2005, Erin began work on a Ph.D., studying international civic engagement at Portland State University; she expects to complete her dissertation in 2011.

Here Erin has kindly taken the time to answer 10 questions of mine on Volunteerism.

In 20 words of less, describe/define Volunteer Management

The practice and profession of engaging and facilitating collective voluntary action by global citizens and community partners

What are the 3 main differences between Volunteer Management and Human Resource Management?

1) While both professions require the building of relationships and trust with their team members, the incentives for showing up a second (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.) time are different for paid and unpaid staff. Unlike HR Managers – who may only be required to assess employee satisfaction once a year via an annual evaluation – volunteer managers must consider and assess the motivations and satisfaction of their volunteers on a daily – if not hourly – basis.

2) When the economy is tough and organizations freeze the hiring of new positions, HR Managers likely begin spending less to perhaps no time on recruitment and much more on managing existing staff needs. Conversely, the need for volunteers generally goes up – especially for human service organizations – which means that the volunteer manager is often called upon to find even more individuals to lend a helping hand, all while also maintaining relationships with and taking care of existing volunteers. This reality makes it all the more frustrating when volunteer manager positions are among the first to be cut in times of financial crisis.

3) HR Managers generally work with predetermined staff positions; there might be some room to negotiate pay, benefits, etc., but the position’s hours, expectations, etc. have almost always already been decided. In other words, applicants for paid roles apply within existing position frameworks. Alternatively, volunteer managers may have a desired framework in mind but are more often negotiating many critical details of the role, both upfront and on an ongoing basis, with potential volunteers, all while likely experiencing an higher level of turnover.

Where is the current leadership evident in Volunteer Management?

While there are a handful of national volunteerism and service organizations around the globe that are doing exciting work to support the field – Volunteering England’s recent VM initiative is one example – it does seem that much of the current leadership is driven primarily by consultants. I can see why this might be the case though: consultants are similarly immersed in the day-to-day work of their clients and audiences but also have the benefit of a 30,000 foot view. By drawing from the experiences of peers and practitioners around the globe, they are in an excellent position to offer both anecdotal and collective evidence on the state of the field. At the same time, as self-employed professionals, they may potentially have more room to innovate and try new models, all while avoiding some of the politics that others have no choice but to address.

Finish this sentence in less than 50 words… An association in volunteer management should…

...serve as the collective voice for the field, including advocating for and educating leadership and the public on the critical role volunteer management plays in facilitating meaningful, effective community engagement and providing accessible and innovative tools and resources to adequately support practitioners in the field.

There have been many debates on the definition of volunteering itself. How would you define volunteering?

I generally use two definitions to define voluntary action. First, there is “service” which I consider to be a broad umbrella under which many kinds of voluntary action efforts take place – from people serving in stipended national service programs like AmeriCorps in the United States to those who give their time as part of a court-ordered mandate. Within “service,” there is also “volunteering” which is, to me, anytime an individual freely contributes their time, skills, and perspectives to a cause or issue without expectation of financial compensation.

If you weren’t doing this what other profession would you have been interested in?

Ah, well, when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, but then I realized that I wasn’t gifted in science and didn’t really enjoy flying. I also wanted to be the first female President of the United States but that was before I discovered that I have very little patience for politics. Ultimately, I recognized that what I really wanted to do was find a way to help the everyday citizen make a difference. One can see why I’m such a nerd for all things volunteer management!

Who do you believe has been the most inspiring volunteer in history?

Rosa Parks. Not only was she courageous, inspirational, and utterly selfless, but she was also smart, engaged, and strategic; Rosa Parks was both an everyday citizen living in a scary, segregated world as well as an active participant – the secretary of her local chapter of the NAACP – in the struggle for Civil Rights in America.

Where do you think social media can take volunteerism and volunteer management

I think social media offers great potential for the world of volunteer engagement and management. It can potentially be used as a tool for outreach, recruitment, and building truly global connections; it can also be used to galvanize, inspire, share stories and practices, and build community among many different kinds of organizational supporters (advocates, donors, volunteers, etc.). Social media may even help to blur the lines between how we define these actors in community involvement, redefining how we engage and inform citizens to take action. While the learning curve to keep up with new models of social media as they rapidly emerge may be daunting, I’m confident that there is a real opportunity to harness the power of web-based connections for greater social and environmental good.

Does Government get volunteering? If not why not?

This is indeed a very big question. I’m hesitant to give any kind of definitive answer here as I know that governments – like all institutions – are made up of a broad and diverse spectrum of individuals and opinions. There are certainly some government entities that appear to have more readily embraced volunteer engagement but there are also many who do not seem to understand yet how important it is to engage citizens in the inner workings of their own communities - nor how much extraordinary impact individuals can have if only given the chance.

What would you like to achieve personally in the volunteerism world?

Ultimately, I’d like to help facilitate meaningful volunteer engagement in the world – those opportunities where an individual recognizes that they have ideas and skills of real value, and organizations and communities benefit from partnering with them to collectively make the world a better place. My best shot at making this happen is to harness my passion for volunteer engagement and my understanding of the importance of supported, effective volunteer leadership and focus them on serving the field of volunteer management itself. Volunteer managers are such extraordinary heroes to me; they are true facilitators of democratic action. If, throughout the course of my career. I’m able to effectively support the people who do this work day to day, I’ll feel that I’ve succeeded.


  1. Thank you Erin for taking the time to share your insightful thoughts. I found your words inspiring as I am sure many readers will!

  2. Great interview, thank you both.

    I especially value Erin's insights into HR and volunteer management and within those the point about budget levels in times of financial hardship.

  3. Thank YOU, DJ, both for the opportunity and for facilitating this ongoing and critically important discussion!


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