Breaking down the ‘grass ceiling’ of volunteerism

Andy Fryar August 1, 2003 2
Breaking down the ‘grass ceiling’ of volunteerism


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

A good friend of mine – a volunteer program manager – was recently successful in obtaining a new position.

Anyone looking to create a career path knows that any new position needs to meet certain criteria, in order to be deemed beneficial in moving a person ‘onward and upward’.

So let’s take a look at that criteria in the case involving my friend:

  • Did my colleague achieve a promotion? Yes.
  • Did she achieve a higher salary? Yes.
  • Will she have greater responsibilities? Yes.
  • Will she have further opportunities for career path growth? Yes again.

And finally, the most important question of all:

  • Is her new role in volunteer program management?

Sadly the answer to this final question is a resounding NO, and unfortunately it is a response that is becoming an all-too-common problem in the world of volunteer program management.

In the last year alone I can immediately think of several colleagues, who have all but given up on trying to find more senior roles in the world of volunteerism, and as a result, have spread their wings and found work further afield.

Not only is this a frustrating problem, it is also a serious one.

A lack of growth opportunities means the sector is constantly losing the knowledge base and intellectual capital developed by those who have been working with volunteers for a number of years. This in turn leads our field of endeavour to being one where the number of ‘newbies’ is proportionally higher than it would be for other professions.

Ever noticed how training courses in the ‘basics’ of volunteer program management are always full?

Now don’t get me wrong, I have no difficulty with new people entering the world of volunteer program management – in fact I welcome them. The high influx of new VPM’s is one of the reasons I established OzVPM. It is also one of the reasons OzVPM is proving so successful!

However, with so many people ‘learning the trade’, we never seem to be able to gather the critical mass of experienced managers we need to tackle some of the harder and bigger issues that impact our profession.

So where does the problem lie?

Largely, I believe it is attitudinal.

The work of volunteers, and by association volunteer program managers, is too often perceived to occur only at a ‘grass roots’ level. For the uninitiated (and this often translates to ‘senior decision makers’), this perception leads to the false belief that volunteers pretty well manage themselves. Sure you need someone to get them involved and then started, perhaps you even need someone to take care of those pesky risk management issues, but surely a low to middle level manager can process all of that!

While many women have experienced the frustration of the so-called glass ceiling – the invisible barrier that precludes women from attaining senior management positions, I believe that volunteer program management suffers a similar fate.

It’s what I term the ‘grass’ ceiling – the mistaken belief amongst senior level executives, that volunteer management need never rise above the grass roots level at which it is seen to operate!

The problem of the ‘grass ceiling’ is compounded 100 fold by our seemingly endless inability to advocate effectively for our profession and for where we should be positioned in our own organisations. We never get to the point where we are able to advocate comfortably for role development and promotion, which basically means, that when we leave our jobs, the next person who comes along has to start again at the same level as we did!

It continues to astound me that volunteer program managers will go out of their way to tell senior management how great a job their volunteers are doing – and yet never make as much as a whisper about the importance of their own role.

The end result of course, is that we have an incredible amount of organisations where the role of the volunteer manager is comfortably pegged forever at a low to middle level income. This in turn makes career growth and movement for VPM’s incredibly difficult.

Those few VPM’s who are lucky enough to have well paying and recognised roles are not going anywhere fast – firstly because there is nowhere else for them to go and secondly because they recognise a good thing when they see it! For the rest of the sector, these jobs are like gold and only come along on a very occasional basis.

The other choice of movement for VPM’s is of course a sideways one – managing volunteers at a similar level in another organisation. While this may be an option for a little while, a career without growth can become frustrating and too often leads to an exodus from volunteer program management altogether.

So just what can we all do to reverse this trend?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Make a point to challenge the conventions in your organisation. This does not need to be an all out war, but try and think of ways you can highlight the importance of your role and department to senior management. Try and make some small change each year.
  • Be seen and be heard. Make sure management get your newsletters. Nominate for committees where you might not normally be seen. Ensure management are invited to volunteer functions.
  • Develop allies. Remember that in all of this, there lies the conundrum that the board of management of your organisation will most likely be volunteers themselves.
  • Join AAVA – the Australasian Association of Volunteer Administrators. There is strength in solidarity.
  • Network. Find out what others are doing and use that to your advantage.
  • If you have never done so, read Susan Ellis’ book ‘From the top down’ , and then give it to your CEO or line manager as a gift

While I am delighted with the promotion of my colleague, the fact that she is to be lost to volunteer management is a real tragedy, and while I wish her well, I’d prefer to know that she had many other options within the volunteer management sector.

The grass ceiling strikes again!

So let me ask you all a few questions:

  • What experiences have you had in regards to finding suitable roles in the world of volunteer management?
  • Do you agree with the ‘grass ceiling’ theory?
  • What role do you think a professional association like AAVA can play in regards to volunteer management developing a greater career path?
  • What other ideas or strategies have you employed to raise the profile of the volunteer department / manager in your organisation?

Let’s hear from you


  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    Submitted on August 8, 2003 by Kaye McCulloch, Team Leader, Volunteer Link, NSW, Australia

    Well said Kerrie. Unfortunate news in NSW for those of us paid under the SACS award is that Employers First are objecting to a rollout of the State award increase, leaving us even further behind. After the restructure of the award last year, we had to forgo the Nov 2002 State award increase, EF are now arguing against it again!! Maybe we should be targetting them in our campaign for recognition of the value of the work we do!

  2. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    Submitted on August 1, 2003 by Kerrie Spinks, Volunteer Resource Centre Manager, Volunteering Central West, NSW, Australia

    I agree totally with the points that Andy makes and actually think the situation is even more critical if you have managed a Volunteer Resource Centre (VRC). There is absolutely no where left to be promoted in the VRC structure once you have managed a Centre. I have been a VRC Manager for 5 years and within my state network there is only one longer serving manager and one person who has been in and out of the sector who have more years of experience than me. There is a constant influx of ‘newbies’ into the network which is great but it is also sad to see experienced and passionate people move out to other better paying jobs which do have opportunities for promotion. The reality is that most of us are paid under the Social & Community Services (SACS) Award in this state and if you have large financial obligations there is a need to move on to a better paying position!

    Those of us who have stayed are aware that we are staying at the grass roots below the ‘grass ceiling’. I endorse the suggestions that Andy makes to wave the flag re our achievements and professionalism etc but know that whilst ever I am employed by a community organisation I am going to be working under the SACS Award. The recognition level within my organisation and community is high – there is just no where else to go. The only ‘improvement’ that I have been able to make is that when a new team member was employed recently she came in as joint manager with me. I proposed this idea for a number of reasons – apart from the fact that I was drowning in my current workload. A major reason was ‘succession planning’, I am hoping to avoid the possible void in the region if I do decide to move on to another job (outside the sector).

    I think another issue for consideration is that there are even less opportunities in regional areas. I live and work in a ‘city’ of 30,000 people. I like living here, I have a great network of friends but the opportunities for promotion of any description are limited. In effect I have reached the ‘top of the hill’ in the community sector as a whole in my community/region. My only options if I want a more highly paid job would be to join a government department and I am not sure my personality would cope with the inherent bureaucracy. The upside to our lack of “promotion opportunities sector” is that we have significantly more ‘control’ over the work activities we are involved in.

    I didn’t mean to write a book when I starter to respond to the Hot Topic and in effect I am not offering any solutions (other than the joint management role) but do think it is a debate/discussion/movement that we all need to be involved in.

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