Not the catchiest title for an article is it? Sadly, the first half of it isn’t mine, I borrowed it from Seth Godin. The second (more boring) half is mine. It’s a qualifier to Seth’s better prose because I want to look at some things he said last Octoberand reflect on them in the context of those of us who lead volunteer engagement.

Regular readers of this blog may recall the wonderful Sue Jones writing two articles for this blog a year ago all about qualifications, learning and development.

Sue wrote these because 2019 was expected to see the end of accredited learning in volunteer management via the Institute of Learning and Management (ILM). Sue questioned whether gaining qualifications in volunteer management was important and encouraged readers to consider a broad range of professional learning and development opportunities. It’s a theme I want to return to as we get 2020 underway.

In his article, “How much is that piece of paper in the window?”, Seth Godin sets out the case for learning rather than the pursuit of qualifications.

”Learning…is self-directed. Learning isn’t about changing our grade, it’s about changing the way we see the world. Learning is voluntary. Learning is always available, and it compounds, because once we’ve acquired it, we can use it again and again.”

Seth believes people don’t do enough learning, preferring to focus on the pursuit of a certificate (diploma, degree, CVA etc.) which, he argues, is focused on a more restrictive approach to professional development, one grounded in compliance.

“We’re surrounded by chances to learn, and yet, unless it’s sugarcoated or sold in the guise of earning a scarce credential, most of us would rather click on another link and swipe on another video instead.”

This is something Seth thinks is ingrained in us from an early age.

” ‘Will this be on the test?’ is a question we learn from a young age. If you need to ask that before you encounter useful ideas, you’ve been trapped. It’s never been easier to level up, but the paper isn’t as important as we’ve been led to believe.”

I find this fascinating. I’ve long held the belief that most accreditation in volunteer management doesn’t assess the right things. It looks at compliance, with things like National Occupational Standards which, in my view, determine how well someone does the systems, policies and processes part of volunteer management. What’s been missing for me is the really important parts of our work: our leadership competence; our ability to take ideas from other fields and apply them into our own; our competence at engaging with and relating to people etc..

In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t have any form of accredited qualification in volunteer management. What I do have is more than twenty-five years experience working in volunteer engagement at all levels, in different settings, operationally, strategically, within infrastructure, on policy and practical matters. In all that time I have never encountered a volunteer management accreditation that would capture and reflect my experience in a way that would do those twenty five years of experiential learning justice.

So, where is this going you might ask? Good question!

As we start a new year and make resolutions for the twelve months, I’d like us to think about a few things:

  • Is the accreditation of volunteer management that exists fit-for-purpose? Does it not only assess, but accurately reflect the uniqueness of what leaders of volunteer engagement do? How?
  • Are there other forms of accreditation out there that may well suit our needs much better that what we’ve had before? Is there a marketing accreditation, for example, that would be more valuable in our recruitment work? Or a leadership accreditation that may be more generic than volunteer management but captures the so-called ‘soft skills’ (I hate that term) much better?
  • Are we really embracing learning in our professional lives, or simply pursuing a piece of paper that confers a status but doesn’t move us forward? Is that true of our organisations as well, striving for Investing in Volunteers every few years but never really addressing some of the fundamental barriers to volunteer involvement in our organisations?
  • How diverse a conception of learning do we have? Is it traditional face-to-face training all the way or do we see podcasts, books, journals, videos and a whole array of opportunities as valid learning? How would your boss view sitting and watching a series of YouTube videos compared to attending a course where you get a certificate of attendance (which isn’t even accreditation)?
  • How committed are we to our learning? As professionals, do we invest our own time, money and effort, or see it as something our organisation should invest in for us? When we attend a training course, do we approach it with the attitude of waiting for the trainer to impress us, or with an open mind, seeking out opportunities to learn new ideas and perspectives and to actively participate so others in the room (including the trainer) can learn from us?

These are big questions. But we mustn’t shy away from them.

To kick start your professional learning for 2020, pick one (or more) of the questions above and share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. If you’d prefer to take a different approach and make other observations on this theme, that’s fine too. The important thing is that we all engage and learn together from each other.

I’m excited to see what you think. Over to you.

8 thoughts on “How much is that piece of paper in the window?: A volunteer leadership and management perspective

  1. This is very thought provoking and is a conversation that I and many others return to often and I am sure will return to again.
    Often as Volunteer Managers, especially in recruitment, we are being assessed by people who do not really udnerstand the role and the challenges of the role and for thsi purpose I guess one value of ‘the paper in the window’ is that it may help other to understand what level of competence people have reached. The reality is that perhaps we (Volunteer Managers) are syaing that we need other ways of doing this.

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    1. And perhaps part of the reason we never seem to move this forward as a profession is because we keep having these conversations over and over again, instead of ever resolving them?

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  2. Ancora Imparo is my motto.
    Accreditation is a small step in saying to the world “we’re professional” and we want you to respect us. I have my CVA, but I also have much-varied backgrounds in promotions, marketing, advertising, graphic design, culinary skills, business ownership, copywriting, and oh, by the way, I’m an introvert.
    IMHO most people stumble across Volunteer Management and since it isn’t a choice that we’re given in adolescence we aren’t prepared for it when we trip into the opportunity later in life. We hobble together all of our life experiences and say “ya, I think I could convince people to do things for free!”
    There is no one size fits all for this profession, and it would do nonprofit and forprofit HR to take a hard look at why they’re listing that degree on the job description instead of really thinking about what it takes to pull this Volunteer Manager position off in fine fashion. I do feel that leadership should be one of the checkboxes on a job description. Proven leadership, understanding leadership, modeling leadership. Easy in theory, hard in practice.
    I loved the CVA process for one simple reason. I’m a learner and I have a driving passion to be the best at what I do. But I do feel that credential isn’t the culmination of who I am as a Volunteer Manager, but rather my varied, and hobbled together life experiences that are uniquely me. I am able to bring them all together in a way that enables me to build a successful program to support my community with people who have big hearts and time to give. I honestly don’t need a certificate to do that. We all know what we’re doing is inherently Good. Why else would we be doing it?

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I loved what you said, “There is no one size fits all for this profession, and it would do nonprofit and forprofit HR to take a hard look at why they’re listing that degree on the job description instead of really thinking about what it takes to pull this Volunteer Manager position off in fine fashion.” Couldn’t agree more.

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  3. Hi Rob, great post..

    The role of a leader of volunteers is such a diverse role that it’s not surprising to hear that you haven’t found a volunteer management accreditation that captures all parts of our role.

    I am currently studying for the CVA exam, because I see at as one of many tools to expand my learning, connect with others and to raise the profile of leaders of volunteers in Australia. I also don’t see any one course or accreditation as a one stop shop to do all my learning for engaging volunteers. Our learning never stops and it’s important to look outside our sector for opportunities.

    I have an accreditation in Change Management and Lean Six Sigma, both which have helped me enormously in my role leading volunteers.

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  4. I believe being a volunteer manager or coordinator consists of continual learning and dedication. Obtaining a CVA certification does not necessarily make a good leader or guarantee a successful program, and it certainly doesn’t reflect or represent the many years of experience a volunteer manager may already have. I tend to agree that a certification in marketing or leadership would be more beneficial to the field of volunteer management, however, it is still a coveted certification for hiring managers.

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