Is professionalism strangling progress?

Andy Fryar December 1, 2003 2
Is professionalism strangling progress?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

Besides volunteerism, one of my greatest passions is surf fishing. It’s an activity I am happy to travel many thousands of kilometres to pursue and one I undertake whenever the opportunity makes itself available.

My most recent expedition saw me travel almost 2500 kilometres to fish a remote location called ‘Yalata’ – an aboriginal community located in the Great Australian Bight, on the edge of Australia’s Nullabor Plain.

The remote location meant no phone coverage, TV, newspapers, people or distractions of any kind. Just us fishermen, the fish (yes there were fish) and a lot of time to think!

While travelling to Yalata, I came across the following quote:

“That which seems the height of absurdity in one generation,
often becomes the height of wisdom in the next.”

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

Sitting on the beach, I began to consider how this quote reflects a powerful truth for volunteering. Volunteers are more often than not the first to champion significant issues and activities considered ‘crazy’ by the majority of society when initially raised as being an issue warranting action.

Even in the harsh Australian outback, I was able to reflect on some of these very issues:

  • The rights of Australia’s indigenous populations to be able to vote and wrestle back traditional ownership and management of their lands was largely the result of volunteer advocates working with those communities to lobby both the Australian Government and mainstream society.
  • The efforts of      environmental volunteers to lobby for the restriction of access to many      coastal zones in order to protect our unique marine habitats. I can still      remember from my childhood, the waters of the Great Australian Bight being      used extensively for whaling. Today tourists come to watch the whales in      those same waters!
  • The now common      practice of releasing alive the majority of any fishing catch was laughed      at only a few short years ago, when first suggested by volunteer groups and      later fishing identities. Today it is seen by most fishers to be a      sensible solution to sustaining long-term wild fish stocks.

Further afield, consider the pioneering role of volunteers in movements such as the AIDS epidemic, the women’s rights movement, the acceptance of the gay and lesbian lobby, the welfare and safety of children, the protection of animals and most of the major aid programs in any third world country.

When put together, all these pieces certainly begin to make one impressive jigsaw!

I’ve heard American volunteering expert Susan J Ellis refer more than once to this group of people as the ‘lunatic fringe’. Those pioneering volunteers who identify a cause as being both important and worthy of urgent attention, usually at a time where mainstream society consider their involvement as an over reaction to a very insignificant problem.

In brief, Ellis argues that over time, the cutting-edge issues highlighted by some of these groups do get taken up by both a broader cross-section of society and eventually government. They get taken up not only as a result of the advocacy efforts of the ‘lunatic fringe’ but also because the problems identified by the volunteers do in fact grow and become a significant societal problem. It is usually at this point that resources are made available and structures put in place in order to find a solution to what has often, by this time, evolved into a major issue.

The main point I’d like to draw from this example is the fact that volunteers, by nature, do come up with some really great ideas, and they certainly don’t need to be issues as large as the AIDS epidemic to be important!

Volunteers can identify problems at an early stage and will often suggest innovative and alternate ways that we might better operate our volunteer programs at a local level. For instance, who better to give you new ideas about your community bus routes than volunteer bus drivers? Surely they have insights to share that you don’t have when consulting your street directory from the comfort of you desk!

As Volunteer Program Managers, we need to be aware of this great strength within our ranks and be constantly thinking of ways we can draw the very best out of our volunteer teams.

However, as volunteer management continues to become more ‘professional’ and our jobs become increasingly ‘tied down’ with having to meet an ever growing list of legislative guidelines and other ‘red tape’ measures, I fear we run the risk of shooting down the ‘lunatic fringe’ within our own ranks.

For instance:

  • How many times have volunteers in your program come to you with a great new initiative which you immediately say can’t be done because of this policy or that      guideline?
  • Have you already (perhaps unwittingly) created an environment where volunteers are seen and not heard. Where they don’t have the chance to suggest or express new ideas or be a part of finding solutions to problems?
  • Just how much do you run your volunteer program to a ‘formula’?
  • How much room does your program allow for new initiatives to happen spontaneously as needs arise?

Now I am not for one minute suggesting that we take our policy and procedure manuals and throw them out the nearest window. What I would suggest however, is that we need to be careful we don’t get too caught up in our own self-importance, especially as our work continues to evolve as a profession.

We need to remember that our roles are about more than just being the employee, whose job it is to ensure all the appropriate ‘boxes’ that allow volunteer involvement to happen in a safe and legal way are ticked/checked.

Volunteer managers should instead see themselves as conduits exploring ways of making new, exciting and dynamic ideas come to life, and let’s face it new ideas can only ever come to life if we are receptive to new (and at times ‘lunatic’) suggestions!

So the next time a volunteer comes to you with a crazy idea, don’t immediately file it in the ‘too hard’ basket. Instead, try and remember that you may in fact be gaining an insight into a standard and better way of operating in the future!

So let’s hear what you think?

  • Do you agree that some in our profession have fallen into the ‘rut’ of becoming people ‘processors’ instead of people ‘builders’?
  • Can you suggest ways that volunteers can be encouraged to offer new ideas and criticisms in a safe and supported environment?
  • What are the barriers that prohibit spontaneity – and what can we do about them?
  • Do you have personal experiences you would like to share that relate to this hot topic?


  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Submitted on December 7, 2003 by Ian Foster, PR Officer, Wide Bay Volunteer Resource Association, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia

    First, on the subject of fishing:
    My grandfather was father to 13 sons and daughters, and was a builder in his day. But builders were not highly paid professionals back then, and he would catch a train up to the Hawkesbury River every Friday evening, fish all night and most of the next day, catch a train home where he’d clean and store his catch, then repeat the process, returning home late Sunday evening. That weekend’s catch would bulk out the family’s diet for the next week.

    This was through necessity, but he not being the only one to rely on the waters of the Hawkesbury to supply the major proportion of the weekly diet, the result today is that the river is ‘fished out’ – you can often drop a line in any of the known ‘top spots’ for finding fish, and at the end of the day the bait you began with is still on the hook…and the catch-bag is still just as empty of occupants as it was when you arrived!

    Our coordinator recognises that volunteers do show a habit of coming up with new proposals or ideas that are worth taking on board or putting into practice, and greets each ‘I’ve been thinking about…’ with enthusiasm. The standard reply is ‘Great! Put it on paper for me, and bring it back!’

    One sure way of getting the best from your volunteers’ brains is to hold regular brainstorming sessions, where no idea is to be laughed at, and no idea is to be considered to silly or innane to be brought forward. There is a story that the ring-pull tab commonly found on drink cans today came from just such a session of Coca Cola department managers, when one, exasperated with the slow ebb and flow of talk around the problem of a new way of opening drink cans, said ‘Oh, for God’s sake, let’s put a zipper on the top of the can and be done with it!’ Research and Development picked up the comment, ran with it, and we have the results of putting a ‘zipper’ on a can on supermarket shelves all across the world today.

    So yes, pay attention to your volunteers’ ideas…hold regular brainstorming sessions, and you may be genuinely surprised at what comes from such meetings

  2. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Submitted on December 1, 2003, by Richard Irvine, NT Friendship and Support Inc, Northern Territory, Australia

    I don’t think that this issue just relates to volunteers. It happens in all sorts of fields as soon as people treat policies and procedures as being definitive.

    I think policy and procedure manuals are an excellent of standardising what happens in an organisation and ensuring all the necessary boxes are ticked; we just need to keep in mind that they are written on paper, not carved in stone.

    If a better or more efficient way can be found, don’t let policy stand in your way. Just rewrite the policy. I know that is easier said than done, but you didn’t have anything else to do this weekend did you? 🙂

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