Talk about breathtaking milestones! March 2017 marks 40 years since I started Energize, Inc. (at the astonishing age of 6!). How can that be?
The past four decades have been a whirlwind professionally (personally, too, but that’s for private discussion!) – often exciting, sometimes frustrating, usually fun, and always filled with admiration at the amazing things volunteers accomplish everywhere under the guidance of great leaders.
When we turned 20 in March 1997, this Web site had not even launched! That happened a month later, in April 1997, and it’s hard to overplay the incredible effect offering this Web site for the last 20 years has had on our ability to connect with colleagues around the world. But half of our history took place pre-Web. That’s amazing to ponder, too.
For our 25th birthday in 2002, I wrote a Hot Topic called “The World According to Volunteer Experience.” I just re-read it and still like it a lot. See what you think. In 2007, when Energize turned 30, we unveiled a major redesign of the site and I wrote “Marking a Special Birthday.”
So what are my reflections at turning 40? Some things are wonderful and deserve to be celebrated. But we continue to fight many of the same battles over and over, which is tiring and draining of our time and energy.
Still Tilting at Windmills
If you read the old Hot Topics linked above, you’ll see the worst problem: pervasive ignorance and absence of vision about the importance of volunteers – continuing to see them as simply a “free” labor force, rather than as mobilized citizens giving time to causes in which they believe. This lack of knowledge (and respect) results in lack of attention to and support for volunteers, which naturally then extends to not valuing those who lead volunteer efforts. I honestly do not know if we will ever turn the tide here. I’ve been trying since I started in the field and will continue to do so – but I’m battle scarred.
What, specifically, seems unchanged in all these years? An abbreviated list:
- That the subject of working with volunteers is still not taught in the professional education of those who will definitely be expected to team with volunteers in their daily work: social workers, nurses, teachers, clergy, those earning advanced degrees in nonprofit management and public administration. So we continue to meet highly educated people who don’t even know what they don’t know about volunteers.
- The subject of volunteers never appears in any forum designed for top executives. From the journals they read to the conferences they attend, decision-makers in nonprofits and in government agencies talk about many, many things, but never volunteer engagement. That is seen as a low-level subject, disconnected to the top-level strategizing of executives. How short-sighted.
- Academics continue to design research out of personal curiosity and to curry their own career advancement by writing mainly for their peers and totally ignore any practitioner-developed writing or collaboration. This means too many studies answer questions no one has asked and, if something useful is learned, it is blocked from those who might apply the findings.
What’s Gotten Worse?
Unfortunately, in my opinion, we are at a nadir in the evolution of professional societies for leaders of volunteers. I am hard pressed to identify a single outstanding national association (though a number of them are trying to reinvigorate), even in countries where there once was a central place for practitioners to find one another. Similarly, national “peak” bodies are struggling to solidify their mission and funding base – and only a few offer services or support to those whose focus is volunteer management.
The lack of joining together nationally is mirrored in the struggle of local associations/networks of volunteer managers to sustain their membership. This should concern us all.
There are fewer and fewer on-site conferences in our field. Some of this is due to costs and the happy availability of online training opportunities. But again, what happens if we never give ourselves the chance to sit and talk – to meet one another and broaden our vision?
All of the above has one more negative side-effect: lack of institutional memory. Newcomers to volunteer management must fend for themselves to find basic information and are rarely guided to the best, most-respected sources.
Almost every journal focused on volunteer management is now dead or near to it. That’s one reason I am exceptionally proud of our journal, e-Volunteerism, now in its 17th volume year (also unbelievable!). But while we have devoted readers around the world, we should have many more. Professionals need to stay sharp and current. What happens if we don’t?
On one hand, the amount of high-quality information about successful volunteer management information available online at no cost today is staggering. So why, when I ask groups “have you ever Googled volunteer management to see what turns up?” less than 15% raise their hands even today?
The socio-political context of our work is suddenly in freefall, as conservative factions take power around the world and attempt to dismantle or redirect social and humanitarian programs, defund the arts, and take action directly affecting the causes many volunteers hold dear. Just don’t forget that these politicians were elected with the help of other volunteers, who are happy about the changes!
What’s Gotten Better?
Dry your eyes! There are some great things happening, too.
First, the frustration at current politics has already started a huge upswing in new inquiries about volunteer opportunities. I can’t name names, but you would be amazed and happy to hear of some of the organizations that are contacting Energize for help in responding to such new potential volunteers. At the end of January, Greg Baldwin, head of VolunteerMatch, reported on Facebook:
At school I learned that civil society is democracy's great counter weight against injustice, inequality and indifference...at VolunteerMatch I've learned how true this is. Last week was the busiest week in our history. We've had over 500,000 visitors since last Monday looking for their opportunity to support the causes they care about most.
Which also brings to mind how many online resources that serve the volunteer community have grown and matured – VolunteerMatch being a great example. In fact, top of my list of happy developments is the quantity and quality of bloggers now regularly expressing their opinions and sharing all sorts of volunteer management news-you-can-use. I’m continually adding to the list in our A-Z Library. It gives me great hope to see writers finding avenues to publish even if there are so few journals any more.
We’ve continued to watch the evolution of virtual volunteering and it will continue to grow and grow. Check out the Virtual Volunteering Wiki through which Jayne Cravens and I try to share creative new examples of online service. What new forms of service are coming tomorrow?
And I absolutely LOVE Skype as a way to provide live, interactive presentations anywhere in the world, with less effort and cost. Just in the last year, I’ve spoken to groups in Baghdad, Singapore, Brisbane, Budapest, and 5 American cities, coast-to-coast. Last weekend, I sent a video to an event in Beijing, China! We are truly connected everywhere.
Full Speed Ahead
Over the years I’ve been so lucky to make great friends in this field. Many of those people, smarter than me, have been retiring and I already miss not having continuous professional collaboration with people like Betty Stallings, Sarah Jane Rehnborg, Steve McCurley, and more. In fact, you have one more chance to see some of us in a cluster at the same place, at this July’s National Summit on Volunteer Engagement Leadership in St. Paul, MN. Do join us!
Thank you to my incredible staff and associates at Energize for decades of hard work. Thank you to our always-fascinating clients, readers, and audience members. Thank you to all the volunteers who persist – sometimes even without quality leadership, but always with dedication. Tomorrow is another day….
Please share your thoughts on 40 years of Energize
and on your own experiences in the volunteer field.