Why leaving volunteer management may be the best thing for the profession

Let’s not lament young colleagues who move up and out volunteer engagement. They’re the ones who will elevate the profession.

A few weeks back, Meridian Swift posted a blog about what she calls The Mokita. (and by the way, if you haven’t visited Meridian’s funny and wise site, VolunteerPlainTalk, start now!)

The Mokita post was all about the volunteer engagement profession’s Elephant in the Room: namely, that we volunteer managers see ourselves as undervalued and misunderstood.  And while the post is important on its own merits, the comments generated by the post are equally absorbing – especially the one by CVA Jerome Tenille.

Jerome wrote:

“We need more people with “backgrounds” in volunteer administration to take on these key [top leadership] roles, as decision makers. At the end of the day, it would be my goal that years from now, I AM that Executive Director, or CSR Program Manager, or CEO who can sit across from a Volunteer Coordinator, have an honest conversation and say “I understand your challenges, and I have your back,” and not because it sounds good, but because I’ve been in those shoes and have dedicated myself to the profession.”

Let’s take the conversation one step further, because this is often the point where our thinking gets stuck. If you are involved in your local volunteer manager’s association – and especially if you have held a board or leadership role, you have probably lamented the fact that many younger volunteer managers don’t stay – they move on to other nonprofit roles (or out of the nonprofit space entirely.)  And if you’ve ever taken part in a SWOT for your board, you know that these departures get listed under the “T,” as threats to the association.

But is it a threat – or is it a natural progression into playing a bigger role in the nonprofit sphere and one we should embrace?

When we treat volunteer managers as a resource that can never grow because the members move on, we fall into the same kind of scarcity thinking that holds back nonprofits in general.

Instead, let’s treat volunteer engagement as the foundation for nurturing new leaders who will change nonprofit culture.  As high-level decision makers, we can do even more than champion the profession, we can do a better job of running the entire show.

Have you ever thought about moving into an executive role but ruled it out as a “bad fit” for your goals or interests?  You may want to reconsider. As a volunteer manager, you possess a unique skill set that prepares you for high-level leadership.

Consider what you bring to the table:

  • Sophisticated interpersonal skills that enable you to manage people at multiple levels: as board members, staff, and community stakeholders.
  • A talent for developing systems that would translate into stable, well-structured organizations.

And, perhaps most important —

  • A particular vision of nonprofit success that goes beyond attracting donors to engaging the larger community in our missions and our causes.

Becoming an executive is not an imperative, certainly. Those of us with years of experience – myself included – may be more suited to playing a supporting role as the coaches, mentors and guides for the next generation. If you fall within that demographic (and thanks to Tobi Johnson’s survey, we know that 18% of us have worked in the field for 20 years or longer), think about how you might use your skills and experience to prepare future nonprofit leaders.

As a profession, the most meaningful thing we can do is to stop seeing volunteer engagement as an end unto itself. Instead, let’s treat it as the path to creating stronger, more robust nonprofits that fully serve our communities. Let’s nurture and celebrate the colleagues who move on to something bigger.

Leaders need wicked-strong soft skills to create a collective vision. My Six Principles of Buy-In covers the essentials. Email me to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and I’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.

20 Comments

  • Hi Elisa- Spectacular advice. I hope all volunteer engagement leaders will think broadly and envision themselves leading their organizations by moving into senior management. And you are spot on with the skills brought to organizational leadership by volunteer managers. Aim high, volunteer managers, our communities need you.
    Thanks for the mention, BTW.

    • Thanks, Meridian! Our challenges make much more sense when we view the bigger picture. And happy to mention your blog any time – it should be required reading 😉

  • What a fabulous blog! It is great to see an increasing recognition at so many levels of our field that ours is a unique skill set that can bring an important perspective and leadership skills to our agency.

    In my ideal world, the role of volunteer coordinator is considered a senior management role at every agency and valued accordingly.

    • Agreed, Laura! And I think we are getting there. It’s a matter of continuing the conversation – thanks for the contributions that you make to that dialogue.

  • Yes yes yes! I encourage leader of volunteers to think about their future career options as including CEO and senior roles. So often they look surprised at this option but the argument you put forward here (and Jerome did in his comment) is so spot on. Thank you.

    • Exactly, Rob! Jerome pointed out that the our profession would benefit from having leaders who understand the nature of volunteer engagement. My add-on is that our skill set makes us natural leaders: we see the big picture behind nonprofit work. Thank you for all of your contributions to this conversation – I know that you often discuss how we might all play a larger role.

  • This idea broadens my context for the work I love. It inspires me to re-imagine my role and potential career path. Thank you for this nugget of courage.

    • You are welcome, Saundra! You are have every reason to think bigger about where you want to do in this profession. Keep me posted.

  • Thanks both to you, Elisa, and to Meridian for this important discussion! I have long said that the jury is still out on whether this is a profession or not — but it is definitely a SPECIALTY. And people can’t “leave” special skills behind if they move to a different job title. Once you know the importance of volunteers and best ways to work with them, you will automatically continue to operate with those expectations. So the real career ladder in our field is for every single VRM to ultimately become an executive director — and then woe betide him or her if s/he suddenly becomes stupid in decision making about and providing resources for volunteer engagement!

    • Thanks, Susan. You give a great example of how language affects our perceptions. It makes so much more sense to refer to volunteer engagement as a specialty skill set that can inform the work of any nonprofit leaders. As for the stupid decisions, let’s hope those leaders take a do-over!

  • This is a great blog and a fantastic start to a larger conversation that we need to have as a profession, but also individually as we consider our own career goals. I particular like the language you used to describe the three skill sets that volunteer coordinators bring to the table. Not only are they accurate descriptions, they’re phrased in language (dare I say jargon) that is thought-provoking and memorable. And let’s be honest, they sound impressive (what we do is impressive and a lot of hard work). To move up the ladder not only do we have to work hard and prove our value, but we also have to “sell” ourselves. Which I don’t think very many of us find too difficult when it comes to “selling” the importance of our volunteers, but we often demur when it comes to ourselves and our own roles within organizations. I know I’m going to start describing my work to people not only in the plain everyday language I generally do, but also in the language you’ve provide particularly on my resume, during interviews, and while networking. Thank you, Elisa.

    • You’re welcome, Geoffrey. It’s great to hear from you! Please keep us posted on how your conversations go. As you point out, it’s important to communicate the value that our roles bring to our organizations.

  • I cannot agree with this more! Conversations with volunteer managers should not only be about added value but about leadership beyond the role. Great blog Elisa

  • I love this Elisa. I was one of those who never saw the possibility of moving up the ranks until last year, when years of advocating led to a shake up of our structure and a Director finally responsible for volunteers. We’d been hidden until then. Now I see a clear path, not only to influence, but to move into a more senior executive role to have an even greater influence on how we engage our community. I am excited about the future again.
    I do, however feel saddened that there are still so many organisations who don’t value the role such that LOVols don’t have the time to learn about the true value of their role and the complex skills they have, or how can develop in the role. And if they move from role to role in similar organisations they can become very jaded and not be able to advocate for the role in the future. I know a number of people who have done so.

    • Thanks, Tracey. It sounds like your career path is taking the kind of arc that I encourage in the post. It will be good to hear your point of view as your role expands.

  • Elisa, thanks for this thought provoking post. Lots here to agree with and incorporate into how we view ourselves in this profession and the value of moving onwards and upwards. After 15 years managing volunteers, I am planning to earn a UDSA Grad School certificate in HR, just to add to my skill set and who knows, maybe one day find such a position. Not sure if they are more respected by non profit leaders, but I know they have more earning potential.
    I bought a T shirt recently that says in large lettering:
    I’m a Volunteer Coordinator
    Because Bad Ass Miracle Worker
    Isn’t an Official Job Title
    So, I’m feeling a little sassy about this all… but I have to be careful where I go when I wear the shirt! LOL

    • Hi Jenna! Good point about using your volunteer management skills in an HR capacity. The two specialties complement one another, don’t they?

      And I love your t shirt idea. Please post a photo on my FB page, Elisa’s Twenty Hats Page!

  • Thank you Elisa for such a thoughtful post!
    I agree with everything you’ve said and echo the many insightful comments already made. What I would add is two-fold; that as a profession, we see the many ‘transients’ in VE roles as opportunities to really deeply entrench in the minds of ‘others’ the power and transformational impact of effectively investing in and engaging with volunteers as an outlook they carry with them wherever they go (and not the bland 101 stuff usually foisted on newbies).
    Second, and slightly tangential, that perhaps we begin a discussion with our peers around the fact that one of the most defining features of this sector is the involvement of volunteers, and so it makes sense that direct experience leading volunteers should come to be considered a foundational, core qualifier for anyone to take on a leadership role within a nonprofit/charity.

    • Thanks for adding to the conversation, Erin. You make some really great points – especially about the need to treat volunteer management experience as a core qualifier for any nonprofit leaders.

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