Volunteering demands a new kind of professionalism

Under pressure, not least from an economic crisis, volunteering’s changing. Its social value is increasingly seen in economic terms. Volunteering’s formal side is eclipsing its informal side and redefining what it means to volunteer in the process. In the midst of this change, moves to professionalise the development of volunteering face greater scrutiny. Rethinking what it means to be a professional offers us a route to rebalance and reevaluate volunteering’s role in today’s society.

Volunteering is a delicate balance of formal and informal giving.

This distinction between formal and informal volunteering goes beyond the usual characterisation of this balance as structural, i.e. that formal volunteering is mediated by formally constituted organisations and entities, and informal volunteering is unmediated mutual help between individuals and groups.

The formal and informal go to the heart of what volunteering is. Whether that’s to do with how we understand the social need volunteering addresses, how volunteering’s ethos is manifested or how we fund volunteering, again and again we see how volunteering lies at the interface between the formal and informal.

In the last decade, when it comes to valuing volunteering’s contribution to society, there’s been a discernible shift in this balance towards the more formal side of volunteering.

Why aren’t we better able to value the contribution of more informal kinds of volunteering?

Typically, the reaction against this more formal volunteering has come in the guise of calls to rein in bureaucracy. Overcomplicated criminal records checks and inflexible insurance policies have, for many, become emblematic of this unnecessary formalisation that shackles volunteering. It’s part of a narrative that sees this formalisation as a kind of creeping institutionalisation of volunteering.

In the last few years, these appeals for a counterbalancing of this formalisation, now also point towards the trend to professionalise the voluntary sector as the latest example of this phenomenon.

Sparks of initiative and enthusiasm

Initiative and enthusiasm, freedom and fun, all are traits commonly associated with a more informal kind of volunteering. For example, can you think of a time when volunteering has been made more fun by making it more formal? More financially secure and more officially recognised may be. But more fun?

Such a crude approach to the balance in volunteering rarely exists in practice. Of course, it’s possible to be fun and financially secure. The point is that we know the art in volunteer management is in understanding the nuanced interplay between the formal and informal nature of volunteering.

It’s about formally conveying the seriousness of the issues that each volunteer works so hard to address. While at the same time, it’s about respecting the inherent informality that comes with relying solely on the personal commitment of each volunteer to get the job done.

How to balance these components of volunteering is the subject of endless conjecture. Fascinating as it is, the point that’s often overlooked is that this discussion now has an added sense of urgency.

Volunteering under pressure

It’s clear there are a number of pressures, not least the current economic climate, bearing down on this delicate balance between formal and informal kinds of volunteering. These pressures pay scant regard to the consequences for how we value volunteering in our society. Such is what’s at stake, at times it almost feels like this comes down to a struggle for the soul of volunteering itself.

Describing these pressures is extremely difficult to summarise. Michael Sandel provides a recent and comprehensive analysis (“What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets“) of the transition we’ve made from the market economy as a tool, to the market society that brings with it the implicit assumption that social value can be measured in economic terms.

Economic values, social values

The formalities and informalities of volunteering may appear esoteric at first glance- a quaint backwater- but each taken together provides glimpses into a form of giving that’s at it’s most meaningful and resonant. In the past, volunteering, a form of giving, was predominantly valued in social terms. Today, the trend is to value volunteering in dual terms: economic and social.

Fundamentally, it is this trend that accounts for the pressures on the balance of the informal and formal kind of volunteering. Economic value is suspicious of the imprecision of the informal and the dependence on the qualitative. Seekers of economic value long for the clarity and certainty of the formal, so often transferable into the quantitative.

It does not need to be this way. There is a balance to be struck. Greater professionalisation if introduced imaginatively, can lead to a better balance of the formal and informal aspects of volunteering.

Volunteering at one with its formal self, commands respect and radiates the self-confidence of an activity that can truly claim to change society. Volunteering’s formal side provides the paperwork that justifies the assertion to be more than mere pastime.

A volunteering that embraces its more informal nature is fleet of foot and capable of reaching the parts other kinds of social action can’t quite reach. It’s often volunteering’s informalities that ensure that when we give in this way, we do so as freely and authentically as we do. It’s giving without pretension. Social change without hubris.

Professionalisation and volunteering

And so to the issue of professionalisation. If it is to succeed in volunteering, we need to be capable of explaining how professionalisation will develop this informal side of volunteering, as well as the formal side.

If the road to professionalisation leads to an even greater imbalance in how we value volunteering, it may come at the expense of freedom and fun.

This requires a complete rethink about what professionalisation means for those involved in the development of volunteering. Too often with most areas of work, greater professionalisation is associated with greater formalisation (greater institutionalisation). According to Richard Reeves and John Knell, there are four principle ways in which professions can define themselves:

  1. Restricting entry into the labour market, e.g. by requiring specific formal qualifications
  2. Organising labour to maximise the profession’s political and economic leverage
  3. Creation and articulation of a professional ethos (set of shared values by which the profession’s work is conducted)
  4. Establishing recognition of the impact of the profession’s work
– Paraphrased from Reeves and Knell’s article, “Good work and professional work” from the Demos publication ‘Production Values

On the face of it, it’s not evident how any of these aspects of professionalisation help volunteering to professionalise informally, as well as formally. Herein lies the challenge for volunteering’s professional development.

There’s a crucial reason for this, which takes us back to this struggle for the soul of volunteering. While other professions have achieved professionalisation replacing amateurs with paid equivalents, for volunteering this presents all kinds of contradictions. Instead, it must navigate a way through to genuinely fuse professional ethos with amateur spirit.

In fact, this is a view that’s increasingly gaining momentum in the public and private sectors, where the question of balancing the formal and informal is more tactical, than fundamental to how it values its work, as arguably it is for the voluntary sector.

Historically, professions have developed assuming what is best for the profession is also best for their customers, clients, patients or service users. Such user groups have had little say in the development of the professions. Ever so slowly, this is changing. Increasingly, professionals seek to understand the ideas and experience of the people who use their services.

In volunteering, we’re equals

There is an attempt to encourage the traditional professions to embrace a culture of egalitarianism, and move away from an overreliance on hierarchy.

There’s a growing body of academic literature on characterizing social relationships in this way that’s developing theoretical frameworks to better explain why these should be distinct social roles. For example, the work of Alan Fiske and Nick Haslam is a case in point which identifies four forms of sociality: Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. It’s interesting to note how the concept of ‘social value’ is arguably stronger in Communal Sharing and Equality Matching, while the concept of ‘economic value’ is stronger in Authority Ranking and Market Pricing.

The demands for greater participation have been energised even further by growing adoption of social media and the networking facilitated by the web. The professions, particularly in commerce, are waking up to the value of the informal. Businesses hail the hidden value of serendipity of networks for their efficiency, they praise personalisalition for its potential to connect with customers, and promote gathering together in more participatory fashion such as in unconferences. Serendipity, personalisation and participation are all products of an informal approach.

Now consider where the case of volunteering fits into this story of change affecting the established professions.

Volunteering is premised on the cooperation of all involved. As a result, in volunteering the value of understanding between those managing volunteers, the volunteers themselves and the service users, has long been viewed as so central, it goes to the heart of what makes volunteering what it is.

Volunteer professionals often lack the equivalent authority invested in a doctor or a lawyer donning the trappings of formality. The volunteers who gift their labour, knowledge and experience freely, have a clear claim on informality. They are not beholden to any formal contract or wage agreement. Service users supported by volunteers are unlike the patients often caught in a moment of need and expected to submit to where they come in the established hierarchy.

The very strength of the link between a service user and a volunteer is its informal character which bestows it with a flexibility and adaptability more formal roles just can’t have.

The relationships in volunteering are often naturally much more egalitarian than hierarchical. Hierarchy has been unable to take root in volunteering due to the need to blend and balance the formal and the informal. Could it be a fear of hierarchy that lies behind the worry that professionalism leads to a volunteering less free and fun, dampening the spark of initiative and enthusiasm?

Rethinking professionalism

The starting point of any process to introduce professionalisation into how we develop volunteering, must be a belief that volunteering professionalism is founded on a mastery of both its formal and informal elements.

It must reaffirm the spirit of egalitarianism on which volunteering is founded.

It must accord the links that join the professionals, the volunteers and the service users, with the value they deserve.

At a time when the established professions are searching for a less formal path, it would be more than a little ironic if the volunteering profession headed in the opposite direction.

We must learn how to value the unique blend of the formal and the informal that’s testament to volunteering’s enormous heritage.

If we have to rethink professionalism in the process, then so be it.

It must reject the pressures to value volunteering’s social outcomes in economic terms.

This is not a simple challenge. For starters, if there are to be professionals in volunteering they require payment- and this presumes a business model that services this payment.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should jettison the one model that makes it all worth while: the tried and tested model of volunteering. The formal and the informal side by side.

Further discussion

The question: “Has the professional management of volunteering diminished that vital spark of initiative and enthusiasm?” will be debated at the Volunteer Fair (Directory of Social Change) – 31st May 2012.

Background notes on this post with research on informal and formal aspects of volunteering and views on bureaucracy. 

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About Patrick Daniels

I work for Resolution as Operations Manager.

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