This guest blog post by Elisa Kosarin, CVA, first appeared on her blog, Twenty Hats, a place for volunteer managers and other nonprofit pros to find practical, skill-building resources that they need and can use on the job right away.
As a long-time volunteer manager, I’ve seen many colleagues move up and out of volunteer engagement, but let’s not lament them. They’re the ones who will elevate the profession.
A few weeks back, Meridian Swift, a volunteer manager, posted a blog about what she calls The Mokita. (and by the way, if you haven’t visited Meridian’s funny and wise site, VolunteerPlainTalk, start now!)
The Mokita post was all about the volunteer engagement profession’s Elephant in the Room: namely, that we volunteer managers see ourselves as undervalued and misunderstood. And while the post is important on its own merits, the comments generated by the post are equally absorbing — especially the one by CVA Jerome Tenille.
“We need more people with “backgrounds” in volunteer administration to take on these key [top leadership] roles, as decision makers. At the end of the day, it would be my goal that years from now, I AM that Executive Director, or CSR Program Manager, or CEO who can sit across from a Volunteer Coordinator, have an honest conversation and say “I understand your challenges, and I have your back,” and not because it sounds good, but because I’ve been in those shoes and have dedicated myself to the profession.”
Let’s take the conversation one step further, because this is often the point where our thinking gets stuck. If you are involved in your local volunteer manager’s association — and especially if you have held a board or leadership role, you have probably lamented the fact that many younger volunteer managers don’t stay — they move on to other nonprofit roles (or out of the nonprofit space entirely.) And if you’ve ever taken part in a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunties, Threats) for your board, you know that these departures get listed under the “T,” as threats to the association.
But is it a threat — or is it a natural progression into playing a bigger role in the nonprofit sphere and one we should embrace?
When we treat volunteer managers as a resource that can never grow because the members move on, we fall into the same kind of scarcity thinking that holds back nonprofits in general.
Instead, let’s treat volunteer engagement as the foundation for nurturing new leaders who will change nonprofit culture. As high-level decision makers, we can do even more than champion the profession, we can do a better job of running the entire show.
Have you ever thought about moving into an executive role, but ruled it out as a “bad fit” for your goals or interests? You may want to reconsider. As a volunteer manager, you possess a unique skill set that prepares you for high-level leadership.
Consider what you bring to the table:
- Sophisticated interpersonal skills that enable you to manage people at multiple levels: as board members, staff, and community stakeholders.
- A talent for developing systems that would translate into stable, well-structured organizations.
And, perhaps most important —
- A particular vision of nonprofit success that goes beyond attracting donors to engaging the larger community in our missions and our causes.
Becoming an executive is not an imperative, certainly. Those of us with years of experience — myself included — may be more suited to playing a supporting role as the coaches, mentors and guides for the next generation. If you fall within that demographic (and thanks to Tobi Johnson’s Volunteer Management Progress Report, we know that 18% of us have worked in the field for 20 years or longer), think about how you might use your skills and experience to prepare future nonprofit leaders.
As a profession, the most meaningful thing we can do is to stop seeing volunteer engagement as an end unto itself. Instead, let’s treat it as the path to creating stronger, more robust nonprofits that fully serve our communities. Let’s nurture and celebrate the colleagues who move on to something bigger.
Leaders need strong influencing skills to create a collective vision. Elisa's Six Principles of Buy-In covers the essentials. Email Elisa to receive a handout about the principles and a next steps worksheet – and she’ll add you to the Twenty Hats mailing list.