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The sound of silence in Volunteer Management

***“And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence”

Martin J Cowling in his blog “The Cowling Report” asks “How do I get comments on my blog posts? I know people are reading them but I would love some comments here!” The irony here is there is no response to this blog so far. At the end of my post at least there will be one.

Sue Hine writes a great blog and is linked here.

A snippet from her blog:

“The worst indictment I have ever seen is the case of the Manager of Volunteers who ‘owns’ the volunteers. They are never ‘my’ volunteers, as I wrote in this blog months ago. Management of Volunteers is about running a service or programme for your organisation. What you do with volunteers in all the training and support and communication and relationship stuff is Leadership (another story, another time).
If you don’t get this, then you get the kind of stand-off between staff and volunteers that can lead to a (metaphoric) pistols-at-dawn shoot-out.”

I commented on this blog. But there has been nothing else.

Andy Fryar is the Founder and Director of OzVPM - a resource, consultancy and training company specializing in volunteerism - particularly as it relates to the Australasian region.

Andy is a past President of Volunteering Australia (2002 - 2004). He is also a past Board member of Volunteering South Australia (1996 - 2003), serving as Chairperson for a total of 5 years. In 1998, he was responsible for convening the working party that evolved into AAVA - the Australasian Association for Volunteer Administrators – the Australasian region’s first and only professional association for volunteer managers.

I mention the above because his is a voice that matters.

In His current Hot Topic on his site Andy writes

“In short - break your inertia and voice your opinion. If we as a volunteer management community are not speaking up on behalf of our sector as these new initiatives start to be discussed and implemented, you can certainly guarantee no-one else will speak up on our behalf ...and at the end of the day, when we all begin to cry foul, the government will simply say 'we consulted and no-one said a thing!'

So let's hear from you

•What trends have you noticed that we should be addressing?
•Do you have tips about how to get active?
•Any ideas how we encourage each other to become more active?
•What role should our peak bodies play in all of this?
•What are YOU going to do? “

There has been absolutely no response to this article as I write.

The OZVPM Newsgroup site states

“OzVPM is a moderated forum where you can ask questions, share resources and get into some healthy debate so that we might progress volunteerism in Australia, New Zealand and right throughout the broader Australasian region together!

A recent posting reported:

“QUEENSLAND'S peak volunteer organisation says the vast majority of people who registered to help clean up following the floods and cyclone Yasi backed off at the last minute.

Volunteering Queensland's submission to the Queensland Floods Commission of
Inquiry also found that 30 per cent of callers were people in distress who
needed to "chat" and weren't in a state to volunteer.

After a huge spontaneous surge in people coming forward to volunteer following the disasters, most opted out when it came to getting their hands dirty, the submission showed.”

There was very little comment from the Volunteer management community on this. Why is that? Shouldn’t we have something to contribute?

As much as I am a huge fan of The Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management I have to say I am eternally disappointed by the invitation-only Retreat graduate online community “not just 50-not just 3”

Sorry folks

How about “Not just working – not just talking”

Apart from talking about the next retreat or a few weeks of excitement after a retreat this narrative becomes non existent and its facilitation needs to be really reviewed and examined. So there’s a challenge for the Retreat in NZ!

Let’s move on to e – volunteerism. Are the editors happy with the amount of responses to their articles even though they have revamped their site?

I regularly read this fine journal. I am disappointed by so little comment on it.

13 years ago…yes…13…Susan J Ellis wrote “My reputation for nagging people to WRITE about what they do is probably unparalleled. But too many of us are so busy "doing" that we won't make time for reflection, new learning, and sharing with others. True professionals keep themselves informed. And career ladders are built by gaining recognition through published articles.”

Have we moved on since then?

A whole article could be written on why our sector is so quiet on matters pertaining to their profession.

We’ve heard it all before

•Too busy
•Not my role or job
•Not interested in the politics
•Not sure what you’re talking about in the first place
•Were not a sector anyway
•It’s about volunteers not us
•Too busy
•Too busy
•Too busy

Jayne Cravens writes a fantastic blog.Check out the link. Many read. Few respond.

And you know what? I get the lurkers. Those who read articles and don’t respond and are volunteer coordinators or managers. Many just want to look after the world that they inhabit – their organisational needs. They may not believe that the bigger picture of sector development merits their contribution. And they get alot from those who do post.

But of all the non respondents the most who disappoint me are some of the major stakeholders in volunteerism:

•the organisations that engage volunteers

•the professional associations of volunteer managaement

•the peak bodies for volunteering


It beggars belief that there is not more of a coherent narrative between these parties on Volunteerism and Volunteer Management.

It is a constant source of disappointment to me that people, involved in these arenas are refusing or not willing to be invloved in the forums, Hot Topics or discussions that some are trying to foster for the development of our various sectors.

Board members from every association of volunteer management globally should be seen…and heard.

Peak bodies for volunteering must have members of their organisations involved in Volunteer Management forums so that they can respond to ongoing discussion.

The fact that they are not or are not seen to be is simply poor performance in this day and age.

More people must have more input and views on the whole volunteerism sector

Petty politics must be put aside. No one owns volunteering.

Volunteering demands and deserves better.

And for that to happen the relative silence needs to end.

"Fools said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you.
But my words like silent raindrops fell,
And echoed
In the wells of silence"

***Source More lyrics:


  1. OK DJ, I'll take the bait.

    I accept that I am one of the many who read lots of blogs, websites and other online resurces but hardly ever stop for long enough to leave a comment. However, I am rarely accused of failing to speak out. Perhaps I am not thinking big enough, but I see my own sphere of influence as local. After all, I am the manager of a small, rural Volunteer Centre where my main responsibility is to support volunteering and volunteer managers in South Derbyshire.

    I generally post on my own blog a couple of times each week and I do a lot of local networking, development work and drinking coffee with the people with whom I am supposed to be working.

    I do post occasionally on OzVPM, UKVPMs and i-volunteer, but perhaps I am guilty of a bit too much one-way traffic - taking inspiration, ideas and information from the world-wide volunteerism community and passing it on locally.

    So, DJ, perhaps the lack of response to the high profile volunteering gurus such as Martin Susan, Jayne and yourself is not really the sound of silence. If you listen closely, you'll hear the echoes in the sounds of volunteering and volunteer support takes place at a local level.

    Dave Thomas

  2. Hi Dave

    Thank you so much for your response. It means a lot to me and resonated deeply. I actually couldn’t wish for a better first reply because Dave, You and I are really two sides of the same coin.

    I know Dave Thomas through online forums in Australia, The UK, through Hot Topic responses, through his blog, through his pondering on volunteerism on Facebook, his contributions to i-volunteering etc.

    Now Dave, let me ask you – do you consider yourself to be a high profile volunteering guru?
    I am guessing the answer is no here. Correct me if I err. Perhaps you are a Volunteer Manager who occasionally contributes to the narrative on Volunteerism and management. Like I do.

    To consider myself as some sort of Guru actually embarrasses me Dave. And here’s where we need to be careful with language so as to not alienate people or scare them off from writing.

    Writing is not the domain of only gurus. Perhaps people don’t write as much on forums because of that fear.

    “Who am I to submit an article for this international journal on Volunteering?”

    “Who am I to respond to this Hot Topic by this international guru with trillions of years experience as a guru?”

    It took a huge leap of faith for me to become more public with my viewpoint Dave. And that’s all it is. I share my opinion.

    I want to encourage others to do the same. As my post stated I get or understand the lurkers.

    And after all the most effective and inspirational volunteer managers may well have no public profile whatsoever.

    The pen is mighty and I want to volunteer to help others who would like to express their view. I actually plan to take this a step further so keep watching this blog.

    I hear the stuff that goes on at a local level. I am very immersed in local issues myself. But Dave, if you volunteer to be a board member of a professional association fro Volunteer Management, if you are part of government with volunteering in your portfolio or If you are involved with a national body on volunteering then I expect to hear your viewpoint on matters pertaining to the dialogue in Volunteer Management. To me, it’s part of your brief to do so.

    I am immersed in volunteerism daily. It’s my job and vocation and I love it with a passion. I share and see hundreds of volunteering experiences a year.

    When I am away from that I do a little writing.

    I’ll keep nagging folk to share their stories and get their viewpoints.

    The world of Volunteer Management would be poorer if Dave Thomas didn’t share his story and I want to encourage the people who read this to have a say. Because every say, every word contributes something.

    Thanks Dave

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful response, DJ.
    You're right, I have never thought of myself as a volunteering guru, but I have to agree with you 100% that I should be careful about using words like "guru" for exactly the reason that you outline. It had never crossed my mind that my own contributions to online communities in the UK and Australia would ever raise my own profile anywhere near that of people whose views I respect and who I have been calling “gurus”.
    Like you, I also see myself as outspoken and I am also passionate about volunteering, but it scares me that some people might see me as a guru. I’m not. But it certainly should not only be those who are seen as (or who see themselves as) the great and good who are able to express their opinions or share their experiences, whether online or in a local volunteering forum meeting.
    Every time I talk to or read something by a volunteer manager, I learn or re-learn something. This is as true for my conversation with a volunteer in a village-based organisation here in South Derbyshire as it is when I read a blog by someone who have become nationally and internationally known through their willingness to share their experience and ideas about volunteering.
    I hope that I never stop learning, and I promise never to stop expressing my views.
    Can I finish this post by agreeing 100% with DJ? The more of us who express opinions, the stronger collective voice of volunteering will be.
    So come on, let's hear what YOU think – about anything.

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post DJ. I hear what you are saying!!!

    Dave I very much identified with your comments. However I think that you sell yourself short as I am sure that I have seen comments and posts by you out there in cyberspace. Incidentally I would be interested to read your blog. What is it called? Don’t be shy now. Shamelessly self promote to the world!!! We all want to read your blog too.

    I also took a great leap of faith to start participating in online forums, hot topics and start commenting on blogs. In fact my first venture in commenting on a post on I-Volunteer was inspired not by a volunteer management guru per se, but by a person who I related to, a “newbie” to blog posting. I was inspired by her openness and honesty and willingness to give it a go. I just had to respond to congratulate her on her post and for her frankness. This was the start for me. I had taken the first big step.

    Sometime later I summoned the courage to actually post on I-Volunteer. I was surprised when I received some very positive comments. One person even thanked me for an idea which led to an inspirational meeting with her and her team. I could not believe that one idea in my post could inspire a team of people on the other side of the globe to have such a positive outcome. After all I was just a “newbie” to posting. How amazing that through this incredible communication technology we can inspire and encourage our fellow volunteer managers around the globe.

    “Be the change you want to see in the world” Mahatma Gandhi

  5. Dear DJ-

    Thank you for writing this post.

    I really enjoy the point that Susan Ellis brought up about self-reflection. I think burnout prevents people from having the emotional capacity to self-reflect (this was my experience as a volunteer manager). When Ms. Ellis comments that "true professionals keep themselves informed" she is making the assumption that volunteer managers work in a supportive organization that values their work as professional. I think that most often, people in this field are not provided that support or validation.
    On that note, I believe that "too busy" is often a euphemism for the fear that prevents us from speaking honestly. Any time that I had open and critical dialogue, it was behind closed doors, and only with people I knew I could trust and who shared my stresses.
    Truth is a powerful thing that can often liberate silence- as you have so affectively done with your post here. You have many comments because being validated can do wonders to empowering people to speak their truth. I believe that volunteer administrators are not to busy to speak up, they are in reality fearful of what will happen if they speak up. Just look at the comments on my first article. One person used a fake email and name. The other is out of her old position, like me, and now has liberty to be honest.
    People yearn to feel free, and have the catharsis to speak up- but do not always have that privilege.
    SO THANK YOU for writing this and empowering people to comment.
    Thank you for helping to validate this profession and the experience of our community.


  6. So, I read the blog post which was excellent and I am posting as I have a blog...I am convicted to practice what I sentence is enough (I am going to have multiple sentences!)

    While I am here, let me point to my blog post on the Volunteering Queensland submission re the flood volunteers in Queensland. See The Cowling Report: Friday Facts- No Follow through. The Post has been up for a week and already is the second most read blog post @The Cowling Report! (and only has your comment DJ!)

  7. Jayne Cravens emailed me thsi response:

    "Volunteer managers will say so much in a workshop, but online, the silence is deafening.

    I think a lot of the silence comes from a culture volunteer managers have created for themselves, a culture that requires us to be nice, to be team players, to be safe, to be non-confrontational and to never, ever rock the boat. I've met volunteer managers who are so terrified of saying the "wrong" thing in writing that they won't write emails to volunteers, let alone respond to a blog post!

    I'd love to blame others for this culture. I'd love to say its senior managements fault. Or donor pressure. Those groups have played a role, but the reality is that volunteer managers have done it to themselves. They self-censor. They hold back. They say, internally, or to me in the bar at a volunteer management conference hotel, "I don't want to sound stupid. I don't want to get into trouble. I don't want to make a public misstep. If one person disagrees with me, I'll be crushed."

    I take heart in this: in the early days of OzVPM and UKVPMS, debates were rare. Rob and Andy were practically begging for people to post something, ANYTHING. Now, conversations and debates *do* happen. As more volunteer managers are connected to these groups (I still think they are woefully under-publicized), more will be connected to blogs - and I hope the evolution will continue and volunteer managers will DARE TO COMMENT.”

  8. Thanks for your contribution Carey. You write so well and I sincerely hope that we hear more from you. I'd love to encourage you to write a guest post for this blog!THANK YOU for encouraging many others!

  9. Hi Wendy - thanks for your comments. Its great to see how you gained the confidence to write. Our sector is stronger when peopel like you add your valuable voice to the dialogue. Long may it continue!

  10. Thanks Martin! We are delighted that you are blogging!

  11. Thank you Jayne. Your brave and meaningful words inspired me quite some time ago! Your voluntary contribution to our sector is simply outstanding!


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