In the autumn of 1998 I travelled to the North London campus of the University of Westminster to attend an event that changed my professional life.

CSV (now Volunteering Matters) had organised the first ever Institute for Advanced Volunteer Management (IAVM). A small group of Volunteer Managers (no more than fifty I think) met for three days to learn from international leaders in our field. Susan J Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch, Arlene Schindler were the faculty I can clearly remember being there for this revolutionary learning opportunity.

I can recall the first day’s schedule clearly. A three hour workshop with Arlene Schindler on ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’, then six hours (!) with Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch on advanced volunteer recruitment. Just think about that – nine hours of in-depth learning in small groups. Not your typical conference schedule – no keynotes, no one-hour sessions where you barely learn anything or get a chance to reflect with others on the application of what’s been shared to your work.

CSV went on to run many more IAVM events over the next few years. Eventually the format resembled that of a typical conference with more attendees and shorter sessions, I suspect because of the economics involved. The cost of bringing together an international faculty of respected trainers and providing a decent venue was unlikely to be met from the fees of a deliberately limited number of attendees.

Then, one year, IAVM didn’t happen. It’s never happened again since.

Other countries tried the concept. I was privileged to be on the faculty of two IAVM’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, USA in 2000 and 2001. Both great events put on by the local Volunteer Centre, but they never happened again.

Perhaps the most success that anyone had outside of IAVM was Australian colleagues Andy Fryar and Martin Cowling. They ran a number of advanced volunteer management retreats in Australia and New Zealand, one of which I was fortunate to be on the faculty for in 2009. Keeping close to the original concept, the retreats limited the number of participants, with people having to apply to attend as demand outstripped the places available. Eventually these retreats stopped too, in part due to the limiting economics.

As far as I am aware there has been no dedicated event aimed at advanced level of volunteer engagement professionals anywhere in the western world since 2013. This doesn’t mean what is still on offer for our profession isn’t good – I attend many events and conferences (well, I used to before Covid-19) and there are some wonderful learning and network opportunities available. But are we being held back as a profession because of the lack of focused, advanced learning opportunities?

I think we are. I may have been in this wonderful world of volunteer engagement for over 26 years but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything left to learn. I’m unlikely to find that learning at a conference or event geared towards people just starting out though. And I’m not alone.

The 2021 Volunteer Management Progress Report found that 29% of respondents had more than twenty years experience in volunteer engagement.

Whilst length of service is only one way to determine if someone is advanced in our field (a discussion worthy of an article in it’s own right perhaps?) this data gives a clear indication that there is a population of Volunteer Engagement Professionals who might not be being best served by current learning and development opportunities for our field.

Without such advanced learning opportunities, isn’t there a risk that practice stagnates and innovation opportunities are missed? Might we also be running a risk that some of our more experienced colleagues get bored with our profession, taking their insights and knowledge elsewhere? In short, is the lack of advanced learning opportunities holding the wider profession back?

As I say, I think so.

What, then, can we do about it?

As I suggested earlier, putting on an IAVM style conference or retreat is difficult financially in the best of times. With the restrictions on life from Covid-19 and the associated difficult economic climate, it may be almost impossible.

Might an online solution be a way forward? There would still be a cost but, without venue, catering and accommodation considerations it might be more viable. We’d need, however, to ensure the learning environment works online compared to intense, small group face-to-face learning of the kind IAVM provided.

Even with this option, would organisations fund their Volunteer Managers to engage in advanced learning? As budgets shrink, spending on training and development will likely be an early victim. Sadly, Volunteer Engagement Professionals rarely seem willing to invest personally in their own development, so without organisational funds even an online, reasonable cost option may not work out.

Where does this leave us? Well it’s not exactly a positive outlook is it? But that doesn’t diminish the importance of the issue. We need advanced learning opportunities for our field.

So I’m going to commit to finding a solution that will work and I want to hear from you in the hope that you’ll join me.

If you’re a trainer or consultant who wants to be involved then please get in touch.

If you’re somebody who would want to attend and participate please get in touch.

If you’re an infrastructure body who wants to be a part fo this then please get in touch.

Let’s make this happen together.


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9 thoughts on “Is this the biggest issue holding back the volunteer engagement profession?

  1. A little late to the party but this sounds like an interesting structure and I can definitely see the need! I am on that curve, I think, of being in the profession long enough that many webinars/conference sessions don’t appeal to me anymore but recognizing that I still feel the need to learn more.

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  2. Sadly, most Volunteer Administrators aren’t compensated at a level where they can afford to pay for conferences and hotels without their organization’s financial support. I sorely miss the SAVE sessions that accompanied the PoL conferences, as these offered some of the best professional development I’ve experienced in this profession. I find more at the MAVA conferences than at any other offering (and I do not live in Minnesota). When the economy picks up and training budgets aren’t slashed maybe we can get back to a national stage with content beyond Volunteer Management 101.

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  3. Rob,

    Hope you are well.

    I was really interested to read your article from Friday. I currently work with the National Trust as a Volunteering Innovation Manager. I have experiences as a Training Consultant in the past. I would be really interested in connecting with you around the work you plan to do. The links didn’t email through to you so thought I would email you directly. Let me know what any next steps might be.
    Thanks

    Jo Parry

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article Rob.

    Not only was I fortunate to co-lead the Aussie retreats for 8 years, I was also lucky enough to be on the IAVM Faculty five times and a presenter at SAVE in Washington one year too.

    My biggest regret with these types of events drying up is the lack of a good ‘launching pad’ for people like your good self – to go on and do greater work.

    We certainly saw that as a result of the Aussie retreat and I do rue the fact that these opportunities no longer exist

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  5. I remember in the USA, I think 2012 was the final, official Summit for Advanced Volunteer Engagement(SAVE) which happened for 2 days prior to the Points of Light Conference in Chicago, IL. Somewhat related but not the same focus as SAVE, there was an advanced leaders-of-volunteers/professional associations think-tank brainstorming meeting during the Atlanta 2014 POL (Beth Steinhorn, Gretchen Jordan/AL!VE, Jennifer Bennett & Katie Campbell/CCVA, Karmit Bulman/MAVA, myself and 2 dozen others), which eventually led to the MAVA Summit 2017 and the formation of the National Alliance for Volunteer Engagement. Excited to see if we can revive something like the IAVM and SAVE learning models!

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  6. From my experience, and as you have already mentioned in the article, is sadly many volunteer managers will only attend PDP opportunities if their employer either pays for or subsidised and gives them the time off to attend during a working day. I’ve been in the field for over 35 years now (scary) and at the start young and keen, I worked for a large national volunteer engaging charity. However, when I wanted to attend anything to further my learning and be better at my job they would not support me in anyway. I had to take annual leave and pay for everything myself, which I did because I wanted to. Eventually, the organisation caught up with the importance of good volunteer management and created a new structure and I was fortunate enough to be promoted during the restructuring and redundancy process. The organisation perviously had not recognised my qualifications, skills or experience in any way. After this they did partly support my attendance at events like ones you have mentioned, but being a bit cynical it was more about them having a presence and raising their profile at them than to support my development. Even after I left and wasn’t working I attended many events to invest in myself and improve my skills and knowledge and gained lots from hearing other VMs experiences and hearing about new trends etc. One thing that still frustrates me is that the question about whether VM is a profession or not, yes it is but until we believe it and do something about letting the rest of the world know this, nobody else will think it. HR management is accepted and understood and people pay for the qualifications, events etc. But until there is a recognised professional body this question will still be hanging in the air and people will move from volunteer management and move to other recognised professions. I admit at one point I started an HR qualification with CIPD as it looked as if this was the only way I could move to a more senior management post. I’m now looking to retire and give back but always been passionate about what I do and would love to see a professional body in place while I’m able to be a part of it.

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