The English word “volunteer” is an example of anthimeria: using one part of speech for another. I am a volunteer (noun) and I volunteer (verb) my labor freely. Such word conversions reflect language transformations that evolve to meet changing cultural, social, technological, and communication needs. For example, Google is the name of a technology company and google has become a verb for searching for information online. This brief excursion down the grammar road, which I avoided as a youth, is useful because it helps me to reflect on volunteer as a position and a process.
Before becoming the president of SfAA, on occasion I served as a volunteer and volunteered my labor. I was not an active volunteer, but embedded in my life was a low-level of freely offering my time, skills, and abilities to different activities and causes I valued. I did so without extensive reflection on whether yes or no, or why, and it was secondary, but important, to the rest of my personal and professional life. I had not consciously parsed out any significance between being a volunteer versus volunteer as a process.
I am now well into my second year as the SfAA president. Today, I think often about what volunteer means, as both noun and verb. I also have conversations on the topic with SfAA board members. As a result, I have become convinced we need to more fully and formally recognize how essential volunteers are to the SfAA, and in the process provide more support to them. The SfAA could not exist without volunteers willing to hold office, serve on the board, fill rolls on our numerous committees, develop our annual meeting program, and serve as editors and reviewers for our journals. These volunteers work with and are supported by our office staff, but many of the responsibilities they take on are beyond the scope of work that can be completed by our small and very dedicated office staff. Without more support, clarity of roles and responsibilities, and sustained focus on making volunteering a rewarding and enjoyable experience, we risk losing this essential component of a successful SfAA.
How can the SfAA better support our member volunteers?
First, we would benefit from a holistic accounting of the multiple roles and responsibilities of volunteers within the SfAA. By making visible and formally documenting these roles we will have a baseline to assess their importance and needs, as well as opportunities and constraints to supporting them. At the very least, we could acknowledge the contributions of our volunteers on our website and at the annual meeting, which in turn helps to formalize their important roles and contributions to the society.
Second, each SfAA volunteer needs to be supported by having clear and updated guidance on their roles and responsibilities. Similar to other small organizations, SfAA relies extensively on person-to-person transmission of information on what is involved in serving in a position, and volunteers informally learn their position “on the job.” We do have policy and procedure manuals for most positions and committees, but these quickly become dated and thus less relevant to changing situations. We are currently working with committee chairs (volunteers) to update committee manuals, and to build into the process a regular review of these manuals. The inclusion of volunteers in this process results in greater understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and, equally important, it promotes opportunities for volunteers to bring their expertise and experience to shaping policies and procedures.
Third, as an organization that relies heavily on volunteers, the leadership and staff should critically assess our support of volunteers. We know there are limits to voluntarism, which when exceeded make it very difficult for volunteers to have a positive experience, and for essential tasks to be completed at the organizational level. As elected leaders of the SfAA, we need to ask ourselves challenging questions, such as: Do we provide volunteers with adequate training? Is there clear and updated guidance for them on when, how, and what to do in their positions? Are we asking too much of members who already have full lives and work? Are any of these roles and responsibilities too much to the point that they need to be shifted to our office, and undertaken by our paid staff, which in turn has budgetary implications? How do we sustain our focus on evaluating volunteerism within the SfAA and providing support and guidance to volunteers?
Fourth, we need to ensure that our volunteers represent the diversity of our membership. By doing so, the SfAA helps to make sure that our organization meets the current and future needs of our members. To accomplish that, we need to improve our communication and outreach so all members know about opportunities to volunteer and how to express their interest in serving. General calls for volunteers for various committees can be used, as well as announcements for specific opportunities. Expanding the number and diversity of potential volunteers reduces the need for some members to volunteer a number of times, and it allows other, newer members to take active roles in the organization.
The ideas and suggestions presented above are only a starting point to improving the SfAA volunteer experience, which in turn enables the SfAA to provide more of what our members want and need. Leadership, with member input and support, needs to institutionalize policies and practices that operationalize these ideas and others that emerge on how to best support volunteers and in turn the SfAA. Similar to the individual volunteer, SfAA leadership (volunteers themselves) and staff (few in number) have full work plates, and it is a very real possibility that our focus and attention will be diverted to other important work. We need to develop sustainable mechanisms to keep our attention focused on supporting volunteers and assessing the impact and feasibility of their contributions to the SfAA. I will be asking the SfAA Board of Directors for their ideas on the points made in this column. I also welcome suggestions from all our members. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com. I look forward to reporting back to the membership on this work in this column in the near future. As always, thank you for your support of the SfAA.