In the midst of COVID’s sixth wave, Canada’s nonprofit sector continues to struggle with uncertainty and increased demand on services. While we don’t have exact percentages on how many volunteer engagement (VE) professionals (often referred to as Managers or Coordinators of Volunteers) were laid off, we can only surmise that between the reduction in volunteer engagement and reduction in nonprofit staffing in general, VE professionals were likely hard hit either through layoffs or redeployment. In fact, according to this blog piece by Volunteer Toronto, potentially 1 in 2 employed volunteer managers were dismissed or reassigned. With this reduced capacity to engage volunteers and a burgeoning interest from the public in grassroots and community involvement, established nonprofits may struggle to rebuild the volunteer base necessary to meet service demand as we enter the “new normal” of the endemic phase of COVID-19.
Beyond the effective management of volunteers and volunteer programs, the lack of dedicated VE staff can impact organizations in a number of ways, some of which may not be apparent to those of us outside the profession. A number of US studies have shown the connection between volunteering and giving and I would expect a similar correlation in Canada. Having a dedicated VE professional on staff enhances the organization’s capacity to translate volunteer engagement into financial contributions. Beyond this purely transactional opportunity, I believe VE staff have an undervalued and oversized contribution to building social capital both within and outside the organization.
As our article Why Hire a Volunteer Engagement Professional? Top 10 Reasons suggests, one of the benefits of having dedicated VE professionals on staff is that they can help increase organizational cross-functionality. In our capacity of engaging the community to best serve the mission, we are in communication with just about every department and/or program area of the organization, including fundraising, frontline programs, marketing, and communications. VE staff cannot do their jobs without having a strong understanding of both the organization as a whole and the goals and needs of the individual departments within the organization and the people who work in them. We tend to act as informal connectors, enhancing the flow of information through the organization. As this Harvard Business Review article explains ”connectors, who link most people in an informal network with one another….aren’t usually the formal leaders within a unit or department, but they know who can provide critical information or expertise that the entire network draws on to get work done.” At the same time, connectors “…are often invisible to senior managers. Because senior executives rely on gut feel, gossip, or formal reporting structures for their information about their managers and employees, they often misunderstand the links between people, especially in large organizations.”
Layer on a crisis like a pandemic and it is easy to see why VE professionals are either first on the chopping block or likely to be redeployed. Many of my colleagues who kept their jobs expressed considerable concern about going back to their VE responsibilities while still juggling the work they were assigned during the height of the pandemic (see The Volunteer Lens of COVID 19: Fall Survey 2020).
Externally, as Volunteer Canada notes, “volunteer management opens an organization to the community and allows citizens to get involved.” This is not just individual citizens, but includes all types of other organizations, from businesses to schools to clubs and grassroots organizations. As a VE professional, I’ve been on the receiving end of calls from newcomers looking to build their resumes through volunteering, as well as professionals looking to provide pro bono services or serve on a board or committee. Calls about in-kind donations also are typically directed to VE staff, as are calls from businesses offering free services to clients. When you list a Coordinator or Manager of Volunteers on your About Us page, you signal to the broader community that the organization is “open for business” and is as focused on connecting with external constituents as on internal ones. In addition, the rapport built with these valuable external contacts often travels with the VE professionals when they leave the organization.
There is a considerable opportunity cost on the social capital side of the ledger if we do not fully re-engage (or not engage at all) VE professionals. It’s also important to note that the complex and diverse skill sets that VE professionals bring to the table are not necessarily going to magically appear if VE responsibilities are simply hoisted onto another staff person. Volunteer engagement is a growing profession, with a clearly defined occupational profile (see the National Occupation Standards), an internationally recognized credential offered by the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration (CCVA) and the associated ethical standards that are key to the profession. The provincial professional association that I serve with, PAVRO, recently voted to partner with the CCVA in offering the CVA exam to our members while at the same time, continuing to recertify our members that hold our own certification, the Certificate in Volunteer Resources Management, which we established over 20 years ago in the absence of a commonly recognized credential. Our profession has come a long way indeed.
Ethical decision-making will be a central theme to PAVRO’s annual conference this year and we invite both VE and non-VE staff to join us for Deeply Rooted in Ethical Leadership: Integrity to Do the Right Thing on May 17th and 19th.
As an association, we strongly believe that VE professionals are key to helping the Canadian nonprofit sector recover from the pandemic and leverage the enormous goodwill and enthusiasm that Canadians have demonstrated to each other during these challenging times. As the theme of this year’s National Volunteer Week says, volunteering is truly empathy in action but the action depends on dedicated work behind the scenes provided by the often unsung heroes of volunteerism, the VE professional.
Aleksandra Vasic, CVA (She/her) is the President of PAVRO and the Director of Volunteerism of Volunteer Success, a Canadian not-for-profit organization committed to improving community volunteerism through a digital platform that connects volunteers to meaningful opportunities offered by a wide range of organizations from different sectors. Connect with her through LinkedIn.