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A Response to Susan Ellis, From Outside the Silo

In the September post about volunteer management silos written by Susan Ellis (“Are You in a Volunteer Management Silo?” Energize, Inc., September 2017), thoughtful and realistic actions are put forth for leaders of volunteer engagement to seek development in an accessible low cost fashion. However, the silo we should discuss is the suppressive silo existing around volunteer engagement as a profession. These silo walls are discouraging leaders of volunteer engagement from imparting knowledge to outside professions, and is acting as an impermeable barrier preventing new ideas and concepts from being accepted. This is due in part by prevalent strains of stale thought leadership coupled with a lack of respect by those outside the field.

Ellis’ suggested actions are a good step. The intentions are noble and may help nudge some leaders of volunteer engagement to expand their vision under budgetary constraints. Might you learn something new? Of course, however I would say the suggested actions are being put forth from within the comforts of the greater volunteer management silo encapsulating the profession. It’s still a perspective from a leader of volunteers, being shared with other leaders of volunteers, albeit a perspective developed through differently missioned organizations. To me, little of what’s suggested goes far enough for what ultimately needs to be done.

If leaders of volunteer engagement are constantly borrowing or modifying “best practices” from within the silo, they increasingly become less original, eventually becoming obsolete. Think about it like this, it’s like recycling air. You can breathe it, but it just lacks a certain freshness we all crave.

So, we need to focus on effective actions to level the greater silo walls allowing the profession to becoming recognized. This same silo is preventing the cross-sector perspective Ellis suggests we seek. Leaders of volunteer engagement can’t truly make progress in professional development until we bring the profession itself out of the greater volunteer management silo. This can only be achieved when the volunteer engagement profession gains the respect from the other side. Because of this, the volunteer management silo requires immediate action (notice I didn’t say attention), and there’s no greater time than now.

The true evidence and existence of the silo mentality.

Let’s face it, most leaders of volunteer engagement find the profession by accident. For me, that’s evidence enough of an existing silo. Perhaps leaders of volunteer engagement have unintentionally created and reinforced these silos. As a result, even greater measures beyond increasing volunteer leadership skills, innovative practices, or rekindling energy professionally needs to be taken to get beyond these barriers.

As a former intelligence analyst, I’ve seen the transformation of interagency collaboration in a Post 9/11 era. It was after the September 11 attacks that decision makers realized siloing information is detrimental. This lead the intelligence community to greater interagency collaboration allowing for more progress in the war against terrorism. It’s no different for leaders of volunteer engagement, siloing still has its negative consequences. Leaders of volunteer engagement do a masterful job at sharing information internal to the profession, but don’t do enough to share their wisdom with other professions where it’s still very relevant. My thought, (our thoughts) isn’t grain to be stored in a silo.

As someone who’s never read a book on volunteer management for professional development, I advocate seeking knowledge from sources outside the field. Over the years I’ve realized the profession lacks both inherent and acquired diversity. Learning transferable skills from leaders outside the profession is a surefire way to increase diversity of thought. Doing so is important for growth in an undervalued profession. It also breathes life into and inspires younger generations of professionals who may not carry the same perspective as those who came before them.

I fundamentally believe that there needs to be a culture shift transcending the non-profit sector, a continual subverting of the current system to break the glass ceiling. What will it take you ask? It’ll take Influential voices from outside of the profession to make the greatest change. We should aspire to be that influential voice, as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) professional, executive director or government representative. Given this, perhaps the greatest move is the one that takes the leader of volunteer engagement outside of the profession. All in efforts to legitimize the profession and bridge the divide as the decision maker whose “been there, done that.”

So rather than doubling-down on actions already taken in the profession, I decided to forge a different path, saying adios after nearly six years in the field. This sounds counterintuitive, but to me it made the most sense.

Elevating our leadership game.

Leaders of volunteer engagement are more than “just volunteer coordinators,” but I fear to outsiders, volunteer engagement professionals are seen as just that. This perception is creating a stigma, placing volunteer leaders at the bottom of the totem pole. This is merely a claim based on interaction and conversation with others. I suspect this perception is limiting the opportunities for the profession’s growth. I would even go as far to say that as a result the profession isn’t respected. Due to this lack of respect, those in the profession feel this in the wage gaps, lack of donor investment, absence in organizations adopting best practices, formal academic curriculum and too few seats at the strategic planning table by leaders of volunteer engagement.

This isn’t news to those in the profession as reflected in the 2017 Volunteer Management Progress Report.

So why should you consider leaving the profession?

For the same reasons I did. Because It’s clear I have a stronger voice in a more senior role as a decision maker. So, I encourage others in the profession to become the decision makers they’re trying to influence. As a byproduct of the role change, being in a senior position will allow you to be a stronger champion for volunteer engagement.

In the current environment leaders of volunteer engagement are overwhelmingly seen as “volunteer coordinators” and aren’t in optimal positions to be decision makers. Not because they’re incapable, but because they’re not afforded the opportunity. Until we’re afforded these opportunities, we’ll continue to be marginalized. Because Ellis’ suggestions are rooted in the silos we’re desperately trying to break from, the actions don’t go far enough. Instead, this is what we must do.

  • Cross-pollinate other professions with our wisdom. As Ellis explains, “daily tasks of effective volunteer engagement are pretty universal,” and are transferable skills useful to other industries. Volunteer engagement leaders wear many hats to perform the job, yet, we don’t demonstrate these skills or impart that knowledge onto other professions that can learn a thing or two from us. So be bold and change that. Just as marketing professionals write about volunteer recruitment (how non-profits can market and attract support), volunteer engagement professionals need to actively seek opportunities to inform other professions of best practices through the lens of volunteer engagement. Doing so builds the profession's credibility amongst those on the outside.

  • Get the volunteer engagement voice to a different audience other than our own. We don’t have to stop writing for leaders of volunteer engagement, but we need to start writing for other fields. For example, as a champion for sustainability, I wrote an article about how companies can develop a sustainability program through volunteerism. The article is designed for companies seeking to incorporate sustainability into their practices, written by and with the experience of a volunteer engagement leader. Leaders of volunteer engagement are skillful in practices that transfer to and benefit other professions. This is an opportunity to showcase that talent to other industries. We’ll bridge the gap by showcasing our knowledge and skills to others who don’t inherently see volunteer engagement as a profession.

  • Attend corporate conferences and attract their audience to join ours. I’ve rarely seen CSR professionals who engage volunteers attend the conferences designed for leaders of volunteer engagement. Why is that you ask? As Ellis points out, people approach things through the perspective of their professional or academic setting. This is true, and in my experience CSR professionals don’t view themselves as “volunteer coordinators,” though they play that role when connecting their employees with volunteer opportunities. Perhaps this is because they often have backgrounds in marketing, public relations and business. Knowing this, we need to make conferences more relevant through inclusion strategies attracting professionals fulfilling volunteer engagement roles in the for-profit sector.

Ellis suggests reading volunteer management books and spending a day in a meeting room with colleagues to potentially stir up new ideas. But I suggest you have a conversation with your for-profit CSR or government counterpart.

I took this route and got a glimpse into the mindset of a corporate manager of volunteers. When connecting with a CSR professional from a Fortune 500 company, it was apparent that my for-profit counterpart was seeing through the lens of their business practice. They’re seeking engagement with marketing and public relation goals in mind, but expecting a social impact result. I also learned that CSR professionals at this particular company are encouraged to seek a Master of Business Administration for professional advancement in that career track. To me this seems a bit strange. Not to mention they’re often focused on outputs (numbers of volunteers engaged and hours accumulated), not outcomes, which is bad news for non-profit organizations. Talk about expanding one’s vision and perspective. Have a conversation with someone who fulfills your role at a corporation and you’ll be both shocked and inspired with new ideas. You may even gain insight into how you can better work together (ultimately bridging a divide).

  • Finally, those of us bold enough should leave the profession and continue to advocate for it. This is the easiest yet hardest to do. Easy because volunteer engagement professionals have many transferable skills applicable to other professions. In conversation with peers, the idea was brought forth that leaders of volunteer engagement and executive directors are the most similar at non-profits in terms of understanding organizational dynamics. I tend to agree with this. They’re the only two positions that require in depth knowledge of all programs, departments, how they’re connected and operate across the enterprise. Knowing this, looking for other opportunities should be easy. The hard part is leaving a profession you’re passionate about. Not to mention having to sell your knowhow to someone who may undervalue your skills viewing you as “just a volunteer coordinator.”

Work your butt off and become the person that says, “you shall” instead of the person who says, “I suggest.”

As leaders of volunteer engagement fill more senior positions we will have greater influence across the sector. We can be greater champions for the volunteers we engage and other volunteer engagement professionals we seek to uplift.

In Ellis’ post, the most important part (to me) is the cross-sector perspective. Without this we can’t begin to bridge a gap that’s crucial to breaking the true volunteer management silo (the more strategic objective). I agree with Ellis that changing the silo status quo needs everyone’s energy, taking a genuine interest to venture beyond what we’re comfortable with. We’re all way to comfortable in the greater volunteer management silo of the profession. Ellis goes on to say, “someday you may change jobs but still stay in volunteer leadership, so what you don’t think you can use today may become important to know later.”

Here’s what I’ll say. You should change jobs, and we should collectively seek greater opportunities to stretch while increasing our influence. It’s necessary for the longevity of the volunteer engagement profession. We should strive to climb that ladder, and when we get to the top, reach down and extend our hand to other leaders of volunteer engagement. Lastly, regardless of the “job” we may hold, we can all still be champions for volunteer engagement professionals from outside the silo. While that goes against conventional wisdom, this is best path to true lasting change.

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