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Is Volunteer Management a Science

In 1959, novelist and scientist, C. P. Snow gave a lecture entitled  The Two Cultures. Essentially Snow argued that the humanities and science were split into opposing cultures, each one not understanding the other.

Most of us would probably categorize volunteer management as a humanity.  In the post  The Volunteer Investor I likened volunteers to humanity investors.  But while humanity is at the heart of volunteering, isn’t the management of volunteers a science? And, by treating it as a science, does that automatically remove the humanity?

Well, what if we look at other science based professions that serve humanity?

  • Does the researcher seeking a cure for cancer not dream about the potential millions of people saved?
  • Does the engineer developing a new prosthetic not imagine the first time an amputee puts on that device and walks?
  • Does a safety engineer never think about the children she may keep safe?

Re-framing volunteer management as a science will not remove the humanity. Instead, it will elevate the skills volunteer managers possess. 

So, then how can we re-frame volunteer management to reflect the science of it? Do we stop talking about the heartfelt work volunteers do? Do we become invested in cold stats? Or, can we do both? Can we still convey the humanity while highlighting the precise steps taken to achieve outcomes?

When we, leaders of volunteers separate the volunteers’ incredible outcomes from the systematic steps needed to achieve those outcomes, then we can begin to identify and speak to the science of volunteer management.

How? Well, we can, as volunteer management professionals begin to:

  • Temper human stories with solution stories and the steps necessary to achieve results
  • Speak in management language when discussing volunteer engagement and challenges
  • Remove emotion when dealing with difficult situations and instead, utilize scientific methods such as observation, gathering of data, testing and logical thinking to solve problems
  • Re-evaluate programs based on priorities, time involved and solutions achieved
  • Re-think in terms of humanely leading volunteers, but managing projects
  • Tout the science of volunteer engagement in terms of strategies, social metrics and road-maps
  • Categorize the skills used to engage volunteers, such as motivating, knowledgeable delegating (not just delegation because anybody can delegate), problem solving, results orienting, relationship building, strategical planning, innovating and big picture thinking
  • Chronicle the methodical steps necessary to engage volunteers
  • Create data that leads to goals, such as maps, diagrams etc
  • Experiment and innovate

The perception that we coordinate volunteers who require nothing more than a phone call negates the methods required to fully engage these investors in our missions.

Do we do ourselves a disservice when we blur the lines between the hearts of our volunteers and the hard work we do? Do we sometimes become so emotionally invested in our volunteers’ humanity that we lose our management voices?

The results of volunteer involvement is humanity’s crowning achievement but the skills, knowledge and sheer hard work is the science of getting to those results.

If we project our profession as a science with a humanity outcome, we can then elevate the precise, nuanced methodology required to achieve our humanitarian goals.

Lab coat anyone?