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Scott Martin

About Scott

Participative Visions in Volunteer Management: Selected Quotations (Part 2)

In 1999, AVA published “Positioning the Profession” an initiative to redefine and bring greater visibility to volunteerism. The document called for a new vocabulary emphasizing “civic involvement, innovation and results.” The profession, it said, needs less emphasis on concepts like volunteer, volunteer manager, coordination and maintaining the status quo and greater emphasis on ideas such as civic participation, public engagement professional, leadership and changing society.

In 2000, Charles Garfield, the founder of Shanti, wrote a fascinating article in response to “Positioning the Profession” and re-published the article again shortly after September 11, 2001. Dr. Garfield called for a new paradigm or “story” that would allow volunteerism to “fulfill its potential in a society transforming before our eyes.” He described three stories central to volunteerism that had become outdated: “the story of the organization as a finely tuned machine; the story of the pyramid as the primary structure of the organization; and the story of the lone pioneer, the rugged individualist, as the successful volunteer manager.” The new story of volunteerism, he wrote, “acknowledges our interdependence and emphasizes the role of collaboration in achieving shared goals.”

What we’ve seen repeatedly over Shanti’s twenty-seven year history is that it’s not just wrong to treat volunteers as interchangeable work units, it’s terribly shortsighted. Well-trained volunteers at our most successful organizations can help supervise themselves, maintain service quality through their own efforts, solve many problems before volunteer managers ever see them and produce hundreds of useful suggestions each year.

…In the new story, volunteers and their manager must be equipped and empowered to make what amount to strategic decisions concerning clients on a daily basis. This requires flexibility and the rapid flow of information. However pyraamids are inherently rigid and inflexible, bound in time-consuming bureaucracy. Information needed by managers and their volunteers cannot move quickly through the official channels of the pyramid.

The new story of volunteerism requires a radical redefinition of the role of the volunteer manager. We can no longer look to the rugged individualist as an effective model for leadership. Neither can we tolerate the organization person who obediently adheres to rules and regulations imposed from above and whicch no one in the organization has ever evaluated thoughtfully. The model individual in the new story of volunteerism, whether leading or led, managing or managed, will be the fully participating partner.

(Volunteering For America, Charles A. Garfield, Ph.D. Charles Garfield Group, 2000, 2001.

Now in 2006, we are beginning to see a resurgence of the participative ideal. In addition to my own article on the subject, there was “Straight Talk: Volunteers and Confidentiality,” written by Debbie Anderson. In it, Anderson recalls a frustrating discussion she once had with fellow volunteer resources managers over sharing client information with volunteers:

The conversation did stumble upon and quickly flee from the topic of the “great divide.” Our organizations are headed up by boards of directors. These volunteers are ultimately responsible for organizational operations, legal risks and success at meeting identified community needs. They are trusted not only with information, but decision making about highly confidential matters like staffing issues, financial status, client populations, future planning, etc. Then there is a gap in it fall staff who for some reason douboubt the trustworthiness of volunteers at the other end of the spectrum, the ones providing these important services. Where does that gap come from? How is it that some volunteers can be trusted and not others? Are Board members any more capable? I don’t buy it. Board members are by and large, subject to little or no screening. Program volunteers generally complete complex screening protocol while board members are “referred.” Now I know that some organizations do better than this, but not many!

(CharityChannel, Volunteer Management Review, Volume 6, 2006.

Another example from this year is Jayne Craven’s thought-provoking article, “The Growing Digital Divide Among Nonprofit Organizations/Civil Society in the USA (and maybe it’s not just digital)” published almost simultaneously with my own article. In this online commentary, Craven expresses concern about the growing gap between those American non-profits using the full scope of technology to support their missions and those that do not.

So, is the source of this digital divide among nonprofits in the USA coming from a lack of resources and support, or is it from lack of will? I have to say that, for the most part, it's the latter. The more I talk to and hear from traditional volunteer managers, the more I suspect that they avoid technology beyond email and web sites out of a fear of giving volunteers a greater voice, and out of fear of other staff being more involved in the volunteer manager's work. These managers fear what more transparent practices might reveal about the organization and, perhaps, themselves as managers.

But back to my original point: there is not only a growing digital divide among nonprofits in the USA, but there is also two different volunteer management styles emerging -- one traditional, hierarchical and tech-wary, the other progressive, inclusive and tech-savvy. Will these communities eventually merge, or will one eventually die out?

(Coyote Communications, November 20, 2006.

Participative volunteer management, therefore, has been a recurring theme for over 20 years and may be experiencing a resurgence in our own time. Of course, the important thing is not so much whether people are talking about participative approaches to managing volunteers; the important thing is are they doing it. If you have a promising practice related to this subject, won’t you email me and tell me about it?


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