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VAT: May/Jun Volunteerism's Newsletter Vintage: 1996

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Volunteer Administration: Meadows Beyond the Garden

Dr. Ivan Scheier   . 

First, an image: Volunteer administration is a garden to be cherished and cultivated always. We have labored long and hard to make it beautiful and of service to many people; we should never abandon it. This article only suggests that we might begin to explore vast meadows beyond the garden walls, for, the further expansion of our 'field."

The exploration involves thorough re-examination of some basic directions underlying volunteer administration/volunteerism. The foreshadow of a new millennium is a good time for this:

• to reaffirm underlying assumptions which promise to continue serving us well in the future, and

• to modify or replace others to suit the changing times.

I sense that more practitioners today are prepared to do this.

The search is for assumptions/ preconceptions underlying organized volunteerism/ volunteer administration which have the , following characteristics:

1. They are embedded deeply, unconsciously, and universally, so much so that typically we are not even aware of them as preconceptions. Certainly we rarely act as though they could seriously be questioned or even discussed.

2. Though they may have been useful in the past and may still prove to be so in the future, it is also possible some of these preconceptions currently limit the ability of our field to grow. Let's now try to get beyond metaphor to examples. Physics first, then volunteer administration.

Ever since Isaac Newton saw an apple fall and made lawful sense out of it, the assumption of gravity has drenched our perception of the everyday world at the surface of the earth. When we walk across the room it never crosses our mind that we might float up to the ceiling. The fragile dinner plate dropped in our kitchen shatters on the floor just as we expected it to. There is a positive side, too: we use the predictable side effects of falling water to produce power.

So far, so good. However, the same assumption - that heavier- than-air objects will also fall - needed to be reassessed and in some sense rejected before the breakthrough to powered flight could occur. True, the gravity assumption permitted flight if you had feathers and wings and knew how to use them or if you counterbalanced the weight of a gondola with the life of a balloon. But the airplane as we know it was "impossible," even inconceivable, until the Wright Brothers somehow succeeded in acting as if the assumption of gravity could have some "exceptions." They were then positioned to discover the airfoil shape, or at least stumble upon it.

What has this to do with volunteer administration? just this; it, too, has pervasive, predominately , unconscious preconceptions, analogous to "no-exception gravity." Examples: in times past, volunteers could, of course, only be white upper class women of leisure. And in a past we share with other helping professions, certain types of people, e.g., the disabled, elderly, low income, were, unquestionably absorbers of help without significant potential to provide it. Penetrating these as preconceptions, then acting as if they were not true, has been the cornerstone of volunteerism's recognition and release of enormous new helping energies.

So much is history. It is harder to recognize currently unfolding examples, because the right to question the unquestionable has not yet been established for current preconceptions. But I can think of one such example: Sue Vineyard's pioneer effort to recognize and take seriously the fact that our work with volunteers involves important functions other than management. This realization must struggle against decades of highly habituated self-identification as practitioners in the field of volunteer management. I believe that the proposition that we are not entirely or at least predominately managers of volunteers has heretofore been undiscussable. Management as a core concept and competency saturates our job descriptions, education and training, and our very identity as professionals. It has, in fact, taken us a very long way forward and should always be a part of our professional skillsbank. But I believe that Sue feels - and I certainly do - that the concept may today, in some respects, be acting as a barrier to further expansion of our field. Therefore, I feel that some questioning of the previously unquestionable is now in order.

Let me now suggest what might be another, somewhat related, unconscious preconception permeating volunteer administration. I have been tiptoeing around the edges of this for years without ever stating it clearly. Let me try to do so now. Volunteer administration assumes that our home, the location in which we develop our principles of leader- ship, is within agencies or organizations which have paid staff. This holds whether the organization is staff-dominated or volunteer- dominated.

Of course, we've always recognized the existence of significant volunteering outside of staff organizations; it's just that, as volunteer administrators, this volunteering was not a central concern of ours. Therefore, our main subject areas were and are things like staff /volunteer relationships and other functions incident to volunteer co-existence to paid staff, usually in a hierarchical organization, e.g. volunteer orientation and training, supervision, accountability, etc.

There is nothing wrong with our having occupied this. "territory," and a lot that has been right. But if we ever wish to explore "beyond the garden," we must begin seriously to imagine that there is something out there to be explored, and ways in which we can explore it. Specifically, what if we were able to imagine ourselves out of the largely unquestioned preconceptions that volunteer administration applies only (or mainly) to staff organizations? We would, I think, begin to see enormous opportunities for expansion in our field.

Here, in preliminary form, are two areas in which expansion might occur:

I. Entirely volunteer groups, including many religious, spiritually- oriented groups; local chapters of associations; recreational, hobby, cultural, or educational groups; neighborhood organizations; most auxiliaries, @o-ops, networks; many service programs in rural areas such as volunteer fire departments, etc. All-volunteer groups are vital because they are where most people do their volunteering, because they are where a great deal of what we call quality of life is first imagined and created, and because working with them would open up more career-track options for those involved in leadership of volunteers. (See my 1992 book, "When Everyone's a Volunteer: The Effective Functioning of All-Volunteer Groups," available from Energize Inc, 215/438-8342.)

II. Not yet as clear, are possible professional roles in working with freelance individual volunteers. But I can see roles in connecting freelancers with organizations or with other individuals for more effective pursuit of shared goals. The job title here might be something like "community connector" and, likely be sited in, an agency with broad overall responsibility for a community or neighborhood rather than an agency which has prescribed functions for a defined set of clients - the latter being where most volunteer coordinators are employed today. In a book some years ago, I provisionally outlined the above kind of connector/resourcer under the name "Neighborhood Enabler' (I probably stole the term from the person actually using that job title in Kalamazoo, NG). The book was Meanwhile Back at the Neighborhood, which is out of print but I still have a few copies to share, on request.

The careerist could perform the functions described above, either as a volunteer coordinator within an organization or an independent consultant outside, or both. A rich addition to the within-agency staff role of Director of Volunteers would be tapping into the potential of voluntary groups organized' independently of the agency and/or freelance individuals, to,- secure voluntary help (I know many DVS' do this now; I'm just trying to encourage more of it.) For example, instead of recruiting, and training your own volunteer "employees" to run educational programs on drunk driving, you would negotiate a collaboration' with MADD to achieve this goal. (Don't even think about trying to manage MADD from the outside.) Contrast this with ‘community diplomacy' with the volunteer administration model we use today." There is more negotiation, networking, collaboration and community development, less of management, strictly speaking. Job titles I've suggested include 'Community Resource Specialist, and "Community-Based Support Systems Coordinator.' Some of these terms are finding their way into job titles of people who used to call themselves "Volunteer Coordinator.'

There's much more to be said on this 'outside-negotiation" model and I'd like to elaborate in a subsequent article.