Professionalisation has been a key issue in volunteer management for many years.
Yet, it remains highly controversial and tends to polarise debate. As a result, many in volunteer management are wary of the topic.
Many of the arguments for and against have been rehearsed and are familiar to many of us.
Arguments for professionalisation
In the ‘for’ camp, there are arguments such as:
- Volunteer management is more than just a job and professionalisation helps it evolve and grow further.
- Professionalisation helps those in volunteer management to be seen as more autonomous by colleagues and the wider public.
- Professionalisation helps practitioners in volunteer management to identify and coalesce around a set of distinct principles and values.
Arguments against professionalisation
In the ‘against’ camp, there are arguments such as:
- Professionalisation runs the risk of making volunteer management more bureaucratic.
- There’s an irreconcilable difference between the professionalisation and volunteering.
- There’s a danger that professionalisation would push up costs and make volunteering more expensive.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the arguments, but it helps give a picture of the issues at stake.
Why then is it so important to raise this issue of professionalisation for volunteer management when we know it can create such division?
The answer is because it gets at something fundamental that has implications for all those in volunteer management: how we organise ourselves as practitioners.
Discourse, not destination
Before going further, it’s important to recognise one thing.
Professionalisation should not be dominated by a discussion about its destination. Professionalisation sets us on a course where all sorts of outcomes are possible – the destination is just one part of the discussion.
Professionalisation is useful because it provides us with a discourse, the terms of the discussion, about how we as practitioners of volunteer management want to organise ourselves. Professionalisation provides us with a context in which we can reflect on how we organise ourselves as practitioners.
We move together
There are many challenges, but one we need to keep at the forefront in this discussion is that we move forward together. Volunteer management covers so many areas of work, so many sectors of the economy, so many disciplines and approaches. We need to ensure that professionalisation is an inclusive discussion that brings us closer together, not one that fragments our community.
We need to lead
There is also an issue of leadership. Not to lead this discussion leaves us exposed to factors such as government policy or market forces that, we know, often influence the development of professions.
Some advocate that we’d be better off making the most of our low profile. After all, the fact that we’re off the radar of decision makers or policy makers can be an advantage – in many situations, it lets us get on and do what we want. However, this strategy is not tenable if we have ambitions to greater organise ourselves.
Professionals, professions and professional bodies
So what should we do to greater organise ourselves?
First, let’s unpick the different concepts that are often jumbled up in the professionalisation debate: professionals, professions and professional bodies.
Many of us already consider ourselves to be professionals – and some of us may already be members of a recognised profession such as the law, medicine, social care, education, and so on. Some argue that the most fruitful way to proceed in professionalisation is to focus on the idea of professionalism. After all, professionalism is something that each of us can decide to do at an individual level – it’s a matter of acting and approaching our work in a professional way. However, there’s a limit to how greater professionalism can tackle our central question: how we organise ourselves as practitioners.
There are professional bodies, there are many models out there – trade unions, learned societies, regulators and many others. But until we’ve thought through how we want to organise ourselves, it’s difficult to have a clear vision of the kind of professional body we need.
Professionalisation focuses our debate on the profession we want – as once we’ve agreed some of the fundamental issues of building a profession – we can really advance on the question of how we organise ourselves.
So how do we build a profession?
I’ve adapted the following factors from the work of Dr Stan Lester “On professions and being professional” (2010).
1. Knowledge – What knowledge underpins our profession?
2. Scope of the profession – What areas are covered by our profession?
3. Practice model – What model of practice fits with our profession?
4. Entry into the profession – How do we see entry into our profession?
5. Ongoing profession development – What framework for continuing professional development do we need for our profession?
6. Ethical framework – What principles are essential to our profession?
To develop a profession for practitioners of volunteer management, we need to address:
1. Knowledge – what knowledge underpins our profession?
In the development of professions in the last century or so there are mainly two approaches to understanding and valuing professional knowledge.
The first developed in an industrial world is the rational and scientific technocratic model- where professional knowledge is:
- part of a relatively slowly-evolving body of knowledge
- largely produced through formal research from relevant academic disciplines
Professional knowledge is passed on to practitioners as curriculum developments, updating events, publications and advisory notes.
The second is developed in a post-industrial society according to a reflective model. See Donald A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action, Basic Books (New York, 1983). In this approach professional knowledge is:
- actively used and changed by practitioners as they work
- evolves more quickly, created in the practice setting, as well as through academic research
- varies depending on the context in which it is applied
With the reflective model, the idea of a monolithic ‘body of knowledge’ is less important than the idea of knowledgeable and knowledge-generating practitioners who are able to reflect on practice and produce knowledge from action.
2. Scope of the profession – what areas are covered by our profession?
This is fundamental – if volunteer management is to be a profession – we need to be able to define what that profession covers.
Professional bodies have used the following ways to define the scope of their profession:
- By reference to the education and training of practitioners (the profession’s boundaries are defined by the curriculum)
- Protected definition of what practitioners do (supplements curriculum-based approach)
- Define profession by roles and functions undertaken by practitioners rather than by education/ training (develop competence standards for range of occupations and job roles)
- By descriptions of practice not functional model, but one based on capability, where essential nature of the profession is still defined in output terms – the emphasis not on functions and boundaries (what does the profession cover?) but rather on core capability (what are practitioners equipped to do?)
3. Practice model – what model of practice fits with our profession?
We need to set out our model of practice and how we structure our professional relationship to those we work with. The following three are common models:
‘Delivery system’ (delivery as expert)
Practitioner assesses a situation and delivers a solution based on their expertise. This kind of approach is perhaps typified by the traditional medical model of diagnosis and prescription.
‘Delivery system (delivery as part of a contract)
Practitioner is a producer and delivers to a consumer. Rather than putting emphasis on expertise and judgement, emphasis is on standards, quality and meeting the consumer’s needs.
Professional working with the client or stakeholders in a more collaborative way to produce outcomes that are owned by the latter. While it still involves the use of expertise, it is closer in principle to the work of a counsellor or facilitator.
4. Entry into the profession – how do we see entry into our profession?
At AVM we’re receiving more and more enquiries from people interested in getting involved in volunteer management. As its profile grows, so does the need for some kind of pathway into the profession. The following are two example models:
Sequential development route
A typical technocratic development route consists of a university degree, possibly a post-degree professional course, and a period of supervised practice. This often creates a limited gateway through which all need to pass to enter the profession. This can be enforced through regulation which may insist on a certain level or type of qualification.
In the integrated route practice and theory may be developed alongside each other, either in the workplace or in a ‘practicum’ that mirrors the workplace. Greater flexibility exists as to pathways into the profession.
5. Ongoing profession development – what framework for continuing professional development do we need for our profession?
The approach to continuing professional development (CPD) in many professions is strongly influenced by the technocratic paradigm. As a result, it’s typically focused on meeting requirements through approved courses or through a minimum number of hours or points spent on approved activities.
More recently, there’s been a tendency to move away from these input measures towards a more flexible ‘learning cycle’ approach, where practitioners need to identify their development needs, act to meet them, and reflect on the results.
A more reflective approach to ongoing development sees it as evolving a growing range of abilities that follow or direct the practitioner’s practice.
6. Ethical framework – what principles are essential to our profession?
Most professions have some form of ethical code that either takes the form of a code of practice or is part of a more general set of principles that governs behaviour in the profession.
“It is because professionals face complex and unpredictable situations that they need a specialised form of knowledge; if they are to apply that knowledge, it is argued that they require the autonomy to make their own judgement. Given that they have that autonomy, it is essential that they act with responsibility – collectively they need to develop appropriate professional values.” See “The Teacher’s Reflective Practice Handbook: Becoming an Extended Professional through Capturing evidence-informed practice” (p11) By Paula Zwozdiak-Myers
According to the BACP: “Principles direct attention to important ethical responsibilities… Ethical decisions that are strongly supported by one or more of these principles without any contradiction from others may be regarded as reasonably well founded. However, practitioners will encounter circumstances in which it is impossible to reconcile all the applicable principles and choosing between principles may be required. A decision or course of action does not necessarily become unethical merely because it is contentious or other practitioners would have reached different conclusions in similar circumstances. A practitioner’s obligation is to consider all the relevant circumstances with as much care as is reasonably possible and to be appropriately accountable for decisions made.”