Monday, 15 August 2016

The question every Volunteer Manager dreads (and a new way to answer it)

Hi, this post has been submitted for a blog carnival being held for International Volunteer Managers Day 2017. If you've found your way here via that initiative then welcome. However, be aware that this is our old blog site. New content is posted to Wordpress and Medium so check those pages out if you like what you read here.


I’ve been involved in volunteer management for a little over 22 years now. Whilst I love being a part of this amazing field I still hate one thing about it, that awful feeling you get when you have to answer the question we all dread “so what do you do for a living?”. If you respond by saying “I’m a Volunteer Manager” you might get one of the following results:
  • “Do you get paid to do that”
  • “Oh, I was once / am a volunteer…” followed by a long story about their volunteering which I’ve had manifest as them telling me all about how much more they know about volunteer management than I do because they are a volunteer (thereby assuming I have never volunteered)
  • “Is that a real job?”
  • “No, what do you do for a living, not what do you do as a volunteer”
  • A blank stare
  • The person asking the question looks at you and then moves to the next person who they suspect might do something more interesting or that they might actually understand
Frankly, sometimes, whether we are a Volunteer Manager or a consultant, it’s just easier to say something like, “I’m in HR” and deflect the question as best we can. After all, if we can’t even agree between us what we should be called then why spend the energy trying to explain that to someone else?
Just recently I was reading a blog post about social media marketing and how those who do that job can explain ti to others. What struck me was this line:
“It’s tempting to come up with one “silver bullet” explanation and use it with every person who says, “So, tell me what you do.” But you’ll be more successful if you account for each person’s background and reasons for asking.”
What a great idea! Instead of speaking trying to get someone to grasp what we do by explaining the detail of our day-to-day working lives, why not ask them a question in return, perhaps something like, “Well, have you ever volunteered?”. That way we can start to unpick their understanding of volunteering (or non-profits more broadly) and find a way to explain Volunteer Management in terms that they will understand rather than our own generalised or over detailed standard explanation.
I’d love for you to try this and let me know how it goes by leaving a comment below.


  1. I love this technique! When I would speak for the volunteer department to new employees, I would first ask, "have you ever volunteered," followed up by "what did you like about it, what were the challenges". It instantly engaged them in the conversation and I addressed their experiences in terms of the challenges of providing volunteers.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Rob! It's so easy to try and come up with a canned explanation of what we do. You get to the bottom of things by suggesting we unpack what going on for the asker of the dreaded question and put our answer in context.

  3. Thank you for the comments so far. Do please let me know how you get on with this approach.

    I am commenting to post this observation from Jayne Cravens who is having some issues with being able to log her view directly. Here is what Jayne says:

    Here's how I recommend people answer, regardless of their job title: "I direct volunteer engagement for such-and such org." And with that answer, when I've used it, I have NEVER been asked, "Oh, are you a volunteer?" Where I did get asked that a lot was when I was working at HQ for the UN Volunteers program. And my answer was this: "Oh, no, I'm not sure I would even be qualified to be a volunteer for the UN. I just work at Headquarters where we support the volunteers in the field." Which lead to many, many questions about the incredible work these volunteers do, their expertise, etc.

    1. That's a great thought "we support volunteers in the field" - like it!

  4. I don't like putting people on the spot with a question like, "Well, have you ever volunteered?" Because they might feel bad if the answer is no, and if they have volunteered, there's no guarantee they have interacted with a paid Volunteer Coordinator or Manager. (For example, lots of church volunteers are managed by other volunteers.) Instead, I say something like, "I manage one of the Smithsonian's volunteer programs in Washington, DC. I get to work with so many great people who love the institution and enjoy "giving back" to it in ways that are helpful." or something like that...

  5. "Well, have you ever volunteered?"

    I would then ask "what did you learn about volunteering?", and "Was it a good experience?" ... and so on.

  6. I tell this story all the time to my volunteers:

    At a family reunion, one of my uncles asked me: "So Kari, what are you up to these days."

    Me: "Well, I'm the Volunteer Services Manager at the hospital in Bemidji."

    Uncle: "Ugh. I don't envy you having to work with volunteers."

    Me: "Are you kidding me! I have the best job in the building! I work with all ages who are dedicated to making the patient experience and our community better."

    He rolled his eyes and grabbed another hot dog.