Is Managing Volunteers a real job?-Reflections on AVMI

Mar 1, 2011
As an international consultant for the community sector, I regularly cross borders. I have many tales of the difficulties and amusements of crossing into countries to present at Conferences on Volunteerism and Service Learning.


In 2008, one Immigration agent raised himself up to his full height and demanded to know why I was going to the National Conference on Volunteering and Service:“what do we need someone from Australia to tell us how to mange volunteers. All you do is tell them to turn up and they turn up”

Clearly this was someone who did not understand there is significant work involved in turning volunteer time, skills, talents and passion into effective service.

He’s not alone. There is significant skepticism toward those of us who manage volunteers. In the 2008 Global Volunteer Management Survey, 35% of managers said being taken seriously, was one of the most significant issues facing them.

There appears to be a belief that with a couple of hours of training, anyone can manage volunteers. My concern is that putting an unskilled person in charge of volunteers is akin to throwing them into the Australian surf after one swimming lesson. While many will learn “on the job”, they would be more effective, if they were properly equipped for this role.

How do we challenge the myth that Volunteer management is “not a real job”?

The 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service theme was “its up to you”. I believe we cannot wait for someone else to do it. We, who manage volunteers must educate each other, the sector and community about the skills, knowledge and strategic thinking required to manage volunteers.

This is why I have been part of the Advanced Volunteer Management Institute held in conjunction with the National Conferences. As an AVMI facilitator, I have four goals:

  1. to affirm volunteer management leaders who can feel very isolated,
  2. to encourage managers of volunteers and the sector to value long term involvement. The 2008 Global Volunteer Management Survey found that 43 % of managers of volunteers have worked in volunteer management for less than five years and 20% less than two years,
  3. to provide teaching and knowledge at a level that is not always found in the wider conference (although I would like to see as much volunteer management material in the broader conference)
  4. to learn and listen to the issues in the sector

I know we didn’t succeed in these goals with everyone who attended the 2010 Advanced Volunteer Management Institute. For some we exceeded expectations. For others, there was a feeling that there needed to be room for even more growth. Both views gave us material to reflect on for the future.

In the meantime Its “up to us” to show the value and importance of volunteer management. Hopefully we can get my immigration agent to be more affirming about volunteer management!

See you next institute in New Orleans.

Martin J Cowling is a leading global consultant on not for profit and volunteer management. In 2010, he was nominated by Philanthropy 411 as one of the 67 most “dynamic and engaging speakers” on philanthropy in the world.

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