How do you plan to celebrate the day? With a few fireworks? Since 2006 volunteer managers around the world have had their own day to raise awareness about the role of volunteer management and mark the contribution that volunteer managers make in fostering volunteering initiative and energy.
Increasingly in recent years, the growing campaign to establish volunteer management as a profession in its own right has spread and gained momentum. All sorts of questions have been raised by this debate. Some concern social status and formal recognition touching on sensitive, yet, fundamental issues such as earning potential, pay and conditions and career progression. In the same breath, this campaign for social status has explored the issue of merit and the value volunteer managers bring. This has raised questions about the role of qualifications, training and National Occupational Standards in defining better the very particular skill set and professional knowledge of volunteer managers.
However, for all the campaigning, I sense that many in the volunteer management community are reluctant campaigners. Any effort to put volunteer managers in the foreground takes many out of their comfort zone, away from what they are more used to: putting their volunteers’ needs and their beneficiaries needs before their own. Julia Neuberger’s characterisation of the profession as ‘volunteer organisers’ rankled because it mistook this reluctance to step into the limelight, with the fundamental value of the role itself.
The issue of words and the values we attach to them reminds me of how the word ‘organiser’ cropped up in the US Presidential campaign last year. Sarah Palin, seeking to denigrate the now US President Barack Obama’s professional experience, underlined his work as a ‘community organiser’. I remember seeing a poster from around this time. It was an image of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. It showed Martin Luther King speaking in front of a quarter of a million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The caption said: “Not bad for a community organiser”.
There are moments that, while I agree with the need to campaign for greater recognition of the role of volunteer managers from the rest of the society, part of me thinks that we could make a pretty good start if we began by simply reassessing the way we see ourselves and each other as volunteer managers. I’ve been working in volunteer management for over a decade now, but I have to confess that I still have a fairly limited, and if I’m honest, limiting perception of what volunteer management is. Am I capable broadening that vision of volunteer management so that it could include the likes of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi or Barack Obama?
Getting back to International Volunteer Managers Day, the key to what makes this day special is that it is international. Seeing volunteer management internationally can only broaden our horizons. What’s special about this day is that it has begun to draw a line between all those around the world who help support and developing volunteering. One way to renew and reassess the way we see ourselves and the volunteer management we practice, is to learn more about what are colleagues are doing in different countries and settings around the world.
In my time working abroad, it’s been fascinating discovering the different ways volunteer management is perceived and how it is practiced. In Guatemala, I was struck how people in volunteer management roles were often valued as teachers in local communities, training others to engage. In Tunisia, I saw how many volunteer managers spent much of the time steering clear of political controversy, to ensure they had the freedom to further the social cause they believed in and worked for. In France, the volunteer manager was often responsible for communicating and instilling the passion and the message for the cause that volunteers committed to. In the UK, since I’ve been back, it’s noticeable how many volunteer managers take on a really practical role of fixer and coordinator in their groups and organisations, solving problems and getting things done, often with few resources.
International Volunteer Managers Day is a moment to take stock and learn from each other. At the same time, we can also learn about ourselves and rediscover a part of ourselves as volunteer managers and to paraphrase a famous volunteer manager from India: ‘be the change we want to see’.