It is a state of mind; It is not an inherent excuse?
By Wayne Spivak
Volunteer: 1: a person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a
willingness to undertake a service: as
a: one who enters into military service voluntarily
b (1) : one who renders a service or takes part in a transaction while
having no legal concern or interest
(2): one who receives a conveyance or transfer of property without giving
Voluntarily: acting or done of one’s own free will without valuable
consideration or legal obligation.
[Webster’s on-line dictionary: www.m-w.com]
I have been a member of several volunteer organizations over the years. From the Boy
Scouts to the Internet Society, from the Coast Guard Auxiliary to the United States Power
and Sail Squadrons, each of these volunteer organizations, stressed one chief underlying
principle: service to [a] the community (nation/world).
Service to the community; Service to one’s self; and Service to mankind. These are lofty
goals for these organizations. And with each goal, the organization requires resources.
To reach these goals, multitudes of people, rich in diversity are needed. But these
organizations could not possibly afford to reimburse each individual. So they sought
volunteers. With each volunteer, their involvement requires them to either invest time
Some of the organizations had a core of paid employees. Some of the organizations
chose to call them “paid professionals”; but I always felt this term was demeaning to all
the other members of the organization. Why should the volunteer members of the team,
who work to achieve the same goals, albeit more altruistically then the “paid
professionals”, not be considered “professionals”?
The term professional is at the heart of many of the woes of volunteer organizations.
Webster’s defines a professional in these terms:
• Exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the
• Following a line of conduct as though it were a profession <a professional
A professional “line of conduct” is a most noble definition. It fits every member, from
the average volunteer to the most educated volunteer, from the most physically fit
member of the organization to the physically challenged members. Each can, in their
own way, follow a “line of conduct”; thus making each individual a professional.
Line of Conduct
It is up to each organization to set the standards, the mores, and set the cultural center of
its organization. Many times, it is the Leader or Leadership which develops the
personality of the organization. Many times, the organization becomes a direct extension
of the Leader’s personality.
But every organization has one (culture). In business lingo, it’s the Corporate Culture.
It’s how the company is defined, both internally and externally, as well as how members
within the organization are stratified. From dress codes to business expenses and perks,
the Corporate Culture dictates interpersonal relationships, as well, if not more, then the
productivity quotient of its members.
“Line of Conduct” has been called by many names. In the Military, it’s the Code of
Conduct. In the Coast Guard its part of precept of “Honor, Respect and Devotion to
Duty”. What ever the “line of conduct” is called, it sets out what behaviors are
acceptable, and which are not.
In many organizations, volunteers are treated as employees, sans the legal aspects that
occur, when one has an employer/employee relationship. Volunteers are expected, just as
employees, to come to work, on time (based on their commitment), and perform their job
to the best of their abilities.
When the goals of the organization and the goals of the worker diverge, an employer may
transfer the worker, or casually suggest the employee find other gainful employment or
just give them the proverbial “pink slip”. These concepts also hold true for volunteers.
Volunteers in these organizations are held to the same “line of conduct”, granting that
they are not “full-time” and are giving of their time and talents. Not withstanding the
modification of some of the basic employer/employee relationships, when the goals of
the organization and volunteer diverge, the volunteers are re-assigned, and sometimes
even asked to leave.
The Peter Principle
Management of volunteers is different that management of paid employees. Motivations
differ. Social and political powerbases are different, both in make-up, creation and the
level of interaction they play within the organization.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition 2002 defines Peter Principle as:
A rule of organizations that states, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends
to rise to his level of incompetence.” Formulated by Laurence J. Peter, this
rule is supposed to explain occupational incompetence.
In every organization, some individuals will rise through the ‘ranks’ and excel, while
others will fail to see their short-comings; the oft mentioned writing on the wall, and will
continue to seek higher office and loftier goals, ultimately falling short.
The larger question is - should the organization allow these well meaning, but un-
prepared individuals rise past their point of ability?
The Volunteer ‘Out’
Very often in volunteer organizations, the term volunteer takes on its own life, its own
inertia. Jobs are done or not done, because ‘I’m only a volunteer”. Failures are based on
the fact that “I’m only a volunteer”.
Credentials and certifications are ‘given’ or watered down, because those who are taking
them or achieving these same certifications are “only volunteers”.
True professionals, experts in their fields, are never part of an organization, if the are
volunteers, because “professionals get paid for their work, and would never volunteer.”
The Political Principle
It can be said that many a volunteer organization was destroyed by the cut-throat politics.
Webster’s on-line dictionary (www.m-w.com) defines politics in this manner:
a: The total complex of relations between people living in society b:
relations or conduct in a particular area of experience especially as seen or
dealt with from a political point of view <office politics>
Political intrigue is part of every organization. Volunteer, corporate, government,
military, politics will be played. Politics will be practiced, and politics will overtake an
organization if the leadership fails to lead.
To some individuals, the only place that they can obtain, cultivate and augment their
egos, is in a volunteer organization. Whether they are highly intelligent or not, some
individuals are bent on finding power, and holding on to that power, regardless of the
consequences for the organization.
“Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”. Some clichés are never far from the truth, and
for these individuals, power does corrupt.
Leaders need to rise to the Occasion
A Leader needs to not only communicate their vision, but also make sure their vision is
not corrupted. Their message needs to stand clear, and un-ambiguous. Their vision must
be steady, and chart a clear and concise course.
Managers who come to power because of political intrigue are usually not the type of
managers an organization needs, nor wants. But if the Leaders close a blind eye to this
practice, then that’s exactly the type of new leaders that the organization will encourage
These non-leaders will in fact, slowly strangle the life blood from the organization, by
chastising those who do not follow in a subservient role. These non-leaders apply
standards of perfection which are unattainable, instead of coaching improvements in form
and function. These improvements would ultimately make the attainment of higher
standards possible. Higher standards mean more professionalism, and ultimately higher
productivity. Our collective organizations are always looking for a higher level of
service, and leadership, good leadership; thoughtful leadership can bring this goal into
A Thought for Consideration
The Leadership of every organization must make it their mission not only to achieve the
goals set by the strategic and tactical plans, which are based upon the overarching
mission statement, but to make sure that the organization itself remains healthy. This
means making sure that the organization grows in not only the overall numbers of
members, but the diversity of the membership, that will assist the organization in meeting