Tuesday, 10 April 2012

We need more Chief Executives who understand volunteer management

At a recent event in London, NCVO Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington remarked that head hunters working for voluntary and community sector organisations have shifted from looking for “skills such as presence, policy-making ability and influencing skills” to now just wanting to find “someone who knows how to make money”.

Some will no doubt be lauding this as an important step forward, with the sector recognising the importance of having fundraisers move into Chief Executive roles.  But I want to ask whether now is the right time for us to be looking for fundraising expertise at the top.

Don’t get me wrong, fundraising is important and more senior managers and trustees need to have a better grasp of fundraising in the sector.  However, in our age of austerity, when money is hard to come by and more people have less of it - and even less to give away - do we need more people at the top focused on drawing in such a scarce resource?  Can organisations really fundraise their way out of trouble?

Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn that, despite the importance of fundraising, I firmly believe that what we need more of at the top of our organisations is people raising skills.  We need Chief Executives, trustees, senior managers and others who can go beyond, as one person recent called them, ‘old world solutions to new world problems’ and think differently about how our organisations can grow and develop.

I’ve argued before that sector leaders seem worrying ignorant of – or at the very least blind to – the potential of volunteering.  This was reflected in the blog posts I wrote for Third Sector online about the recent State of The Sector research and, perhaps more worryingly, the implications of last year’s Leadership 20:20 report which looked at the future of voluntary and community sector leadership.  Even more recently Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) questioned the whole premise of the government’s planned Giving Summit because of the 2012 Budget’s potential impact on major gift fundraising.

Volunteers today are increasingly different from those many have relied on over the years – the so called civic core of 8% of all volunteers who give nearly half the donated hours.  Today’s volunteers don’t thrill to such long term, time intensive commitments, at least not when they first start volunteering.  Instead they want more flexible ways to give time, engaging on their terms (not just ours), and bringing a wealth of talent, skills & experience to our organisations that in some cases far exceeds that to be found amongst the current paid workforce of the sector.  This is likely to become more and more commonplace as the baby boomers retire in greater numbers and seek opportunities to put their professional experience to work for the good of society.

What we need are senior leaders in the sector who understand these changes and can help steer organisations to adapt to them.  Leaders who can see how to harness the talents of Gen Y and baby boomer volunteers, re-distributing work according to who is best placed to achieve results not how much they get paid, and effectively stewarding all the resources at their disposal, not just those with a £ sign attached.

Maybe what the head hunters should looking for is more Chief Executives with experience of volunteer management.

But is that where we as volunteer managers aspire to be?

When I started in the field back in 1994 I had no idea that what I was doing was volunteer management.  I never saw this as a career and certainly never dreamed I’d do what I’ve done in the last 18 years.

So it is with many others.  Volunteer management has historically been a transitory field, with people coming into it as a route on to other roles in the sector or as an option that makes the transition back into the paid workforce after time away an easier one.

To my eyes it is only fairly recently that we have started to see more people coming into volunteer management as a career choice, something they want to spend much of their professional lives dedicated to.  Perhaps that’s why we hear more talk of qualifications and professional development now than we ever did before.

Of course it’s good news that we have so many bright and talented (and young!) people getting into the field, moving us forward and challenging those of us who’ve been around a while (you know who you are!) to keep up with the ever increasing pace of change. 

But what do we see as the pinnacle of that career path?

Is it heading a volunteer programme at a large national or international organisation?

Is it becoming a consultant in volunteer leadership and management, helping organisations get better at engaging volunteers?

Perhaps the pinnacle of a volunteer management career should be to move on from leading volunteer programmes and lead organisations instead, using our knowledge and experience to help shape volunteer involvement from the top job? 

Of course all these options (and more) are completely valid aspirations but do we need more volunteer managers looking at the last one – becoming a CEO? 

When so many Chief Executives seem to fail to ‘get’ volunteering, should we be aiming for more of us to take such jobs and influence from the top down not just the bottom up? 

Do our discussions around professional development focus on making people better volunteer managers but not potential Chief Executives? 

Should we – counter-intuitive as it may seem – be encouraging the best amongst us to stop being leaders of volunteer programmes and start being leaders of organisations?

What do you think?


  1. Yes, yes, yes!!!

    The best volunteer managers are strategists, innovators, identify business development opportunities, understand workforce planning, are excellent at identifying inefficiencies and providing creative solutions, are change management specialists, create opportunities to build the public profile of an organisation...all of which are excellent qualities for CEOs and senior executives to have.

    YES! Let's see leading organisations as a possible progression.

    This is both a selfish perspective and a bigger picture perspective. If the progression for a volunteer manager is consultancy or leading volunteer programs at a national/statewide level - that seems limiting for individuals, for the profession, and for society in general.

    There are only so many volunteer programs to be led, and only so much space in the market for consultants. Additionally, if we - as a sector - are primarily focussed on leading volunteers it's only half the job done. We're preaching to the converted.

    If volunteer managers move into key 'non-volunteer-management' leadership positions in organisations, we engage Directors, CEOs, MDs, senior managers at their level, speaking their language, using their terminology, and we influence organisational culture. 'We' become 'them' and 'they'...or do 'they' become 'we'...?

    Quite apart from that, think of what the world is missing out on if we all stay in our boxes:)

  2. I am posting this on behalf of Emma Corrigan at Shelter:


    Yes Yes Yes! Great post.

    Career development is a tricky one. Personally speaking I love to one day think that I could lead an organisation and be a CEO type person, but the one thing that has always put me off is the thought (as mentioned above) that the CEO has to be the 'money guy' - it's a harsh reality that at the moment many CEO's are being relied on to magic up money to keep organisations afloat, when there is no money to be found.

    Now I know that us VM's out there have a plethora of skills and abilities that could help the development of organisations by integrating VM work therefore not needing to find cash, but I dread the thought of lying awake at night listening to my ulcer (that I'd get from worrying) gurgling at the thought of how to pay the bills.

    I'd also like to moot that us VM's are pretty special all round, and if we uphold our beliefs and values as we move across an organisation, we can affect positive change wherever we go. As I reckon a lot of organisations could do with treating their paid staff a little better too... It's just the further away from volunteering we get - the less fun it might get?

    Great post Rob.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post Rob. And Kalie hit the nail on the head quite firmly in the first paragraph of her response.

    Your article Rob brought to mind for me the 2007 Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management which was held in 2007 in Hobart, Tasmania. This third retreat featured the theme 'Positioning our Profession'. The group that attended this Retreat adopted a statement created by a delegate which was dubbed the 'Hobart Statement' which read -

    "My challenge to you all is to go forward and create a formal profession of Volunteer Program Management which features generic transferable acceptance. (Generic transferable acceptance = skills that are transferable across agencies and sectors of volunteerism)”

    As I wrote in a blog of my own over a year ago”What we are today as a sector is a result of our own past actions. Whatever we wish to be as a sector in the future depends on our present actions. We need to decide how we act now. We are responsible for and whatever we wish ourselves to be.”

    And yes – this includes growing and encouraging potential leaders of organisations!

    DJ Cronin