Introduction: A Theme Issue on Credentialing

Volume XII, Issue 1, October 2011

Susan J. Ellis, Editor-in-Chief

Welcome to this special issue of e-Volunteerism, devoted entirely to the theme of credentialing in volunteer management. We are excited to offer this comprehensive range of articles. To our knowledge, no other forum has collected so many dimensions of this subject in a single place, with perspectives from different countries presented side by side. 

Why this Theme, Why Now

In early 2011, the subject of credentialing in our field began to percolate simultaneously in several professional forums for volunteer resources managers.  Although there were different reasons for the discussions, a number of issues were reaching critical mass. 

For example, a national initiative in New Zealand began advocating for greater recognition of the profession just as, on the other side of the world, colleagues in the United Kingdom grappled with questions about standards and qualifications. In the United States, the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration has been successfully growing the number of practitioners earning their CVA credential: Certified in Volunteer Management.  Examination of the role of leader of volunteers is also a part of the focus of both the European Year of Volunteering and the International Year of Volunteers + 10; as it happens, United Nations Volunteers is set to publish the State of the World of Volunteering Report as a culmination to IYV+10 on December 5th, while this issue of e-Volunteerism is current.  It is also synchronistic that November 5th is International Volunteer Managers Day (IVM Day).

In July, I wrote a “Hot Topic” essay, “Needed: A Multi-level Approach to Credentialing Volunteer Management,” that questioned elements of current certification approaches.  It generated a huge response from site visitors and raised quite a bit of controversy across the Web. The journal’s editorial team subsequently had several private exchanges; we quickly realized that despite our knowledge base and years of experience, none of us hold any of the credentials available in our different countries. 

The whole debate was fascinating and complex enough to warrant serious examination. So we announced our intent to publish this theme issue and solicited volunteers to participate. Thanks to all who responded.

A Hard Topic to Discuss

Although there are lots of opinions out there on the pros and cons of credentialing and of the various official bodies doing the certifying, productive discussion is often hampered by a lack of context

Volunteer management is hardly the first profession (or, if you prefer, occupation) to attempt to codify its practices and set standards for those practicing it. So it is instructive to look at the experience of other professions. What was gained and what was lost by certifying teachers, social workers and other white-collar workers? What is happening right now in setting standards for nonprofit management, as a relevant example? And what about the experiences of the many trades, from beauticians to plumbers, who also license their members?

Also, efforts to credential volunteer management have been going on simultaneously in the seven countries documented in these articles, and in even more places. Yet few colleagues realize this or know much about it, including those who purport to be the qualifiers of others. Shouldn’t there be some communication and collegial exchange among all the initiatives? Is there something we can learn from the experiences in each other’s countries?

There is disagreement about the type of formal education that should be required of someone in volunteer management and whether this should be an academic degree or some form of professional continuing education. Rob Jackson noted a wonderful quotation from Albert Einstein that may be relevant here: "The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education."

Another difficulty is the lack of agreement on the vocabulary of credentialing, something we have tried to address with Sarah Jane Rehnborg’s article.

In general, there has only been limited collective discussion of the underlying principles involved in credentialing volunteer management. What exactly do we want and why? After several rounds of focus groups across the UK, Pat Gray, the author of Bright Future: Developing Volunteer Management (published in 2001 by the Institute for Volunteering Research in London), summarized the conflicting views held in our field:

Professionalisation would. . .

1.     Give the work status.

2.     Not be appropriate because volunteer management is too diverse to become a profession.

3.     Be vital if the public is to recognise the worth of volunteers.

4.     Mean unnecessary formalisation.

5.     Inspire public confidence.

6.     Have the effect of narrowing the scope of the work.

7.     Give confidence to funders and subscribers.

8.     Be a ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut.’

9.     Put the voluntary movement centre stage.

10.  Put off many talented people who might not be able to earn formal qualifications.

Disentangling the criss-crossing views expressed in the VM groups reveals a very confused picture,
which might be likened to a landscape of shifting 
sands (p. 18).

A Starter Set of Questions

In briefing contributors to this issue, I developed a set of questions to frame the issues involved in credentialing. I found it a useful way to focus my own thinking and offer the questions here for all readers. The articles presented in this issue deal with many of these elements, but not all. Please feel free to use these questions to start further discussion, whether in a formal meeting or simply among friends.  There may be no single answers, but the first step is definitely asking the right questions.

What Do We Want?

A.  What is the purpose of wanting to credential ourselves in volunteer  management (VM)? 

1.   Whom does it (should it) benefit?

a.The practitioner personally as a learning and growth opportunity?  To advance in terms of promotion and salary?

b. Employers as a standard for hiring someone?

c.   Peer recognition for colleagues?

d. Volunteers, through more competent leadership? 

2.   If it is meant to validate VM as a legitimate field, are there other ways to accomplish this?

3.   Are we seeking entry-level accreditation (basic knowledge) or/and advanced designations?

4.   Do we want to have a re-certification process to keep someone with a credential current over time (maintaining the credential)?

B.  How important is it that academic institutions teach VM? 

1.   Do we want a degree? At what level? Some courses for academic credit? Non-credit programs?

2.   How do we reconcile that our work is done cross-field/sector when universities tend to segregate disciplines?

D.  A professional credential is bestowed by a professional society or government authority. 

1.   Who are our current certifying bodies and how were they selected? 

2.   Who should be responsible for developing the standards, the curriculum, the pass/fail criteria? Under what authority and with whose input?

3.   Given that ours is not a “hard science,” what if someone really disagrees? Should there be grievance opportunities? And who arbitrates?

E.  What is the ideal? Are we working towards that or simply doing “what we can” right now?

1.   Are we trying to create professionals who stick with VM regardless of the setting, or is it important to us to validate that someone has achieved a certain skill-level in VM, as part of their performance in another profession or in a particular setting?

a.  How do we reconcile the fact that the majority of people working at volunteer management do so on a part-time basis, in addition to other job responsibilities? Is the credential only for full-time practitioners?

b.  What about volunteers who want to be acknowledged for competence in leading all-volunteer associations?

2.   Are we trying to set up a minimum qualification for our field, in the hope that someday only someone who has the credential will serve in this role? If not, what does it mean to those who go to the trouble of earning it? If we do want to keep “untrained” people out, what are the implications of that?

3.   Does there need to be one national standard or can there be several?

4.   Should there be an attempt to align all countries in a basic international standard?

5.   Is the credential only for practitioners?  What about teachers, consultants, administrators, etc.? 

6.   How should the field deal with the whole question of “grandfathering” long-time practitioners into new certifying procedures?

F.  Is there a profession or career field that we want to emulate as a model? 

1.   Which and why? 

2.   Are there any examples of professional development we would prefer not repeating?

3.   Where does our approach to credentialing VM fit with the other professions most likely to come in contact with us? For example, we don’t need to be like surgeons or architects. But do we need to consider how nonprofit or public agency execs are credentialed?  Fundraisers? Others?    

There are clearly many questions to answer – and we hope e-Volunteerism furthers informed discussion. Thank you to all the contributors to this comprehensive issue – and to you, the reader, for your engagement.

Volume XII, Issue 1, October 2011

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