Have you ever noticed that certain words are used, both unintentionally and not, to contextualize and qualify the rest of a sentence? This is especially used when discussing people or things that are outside given norms or stereotypes of how things have been historically. For example, people often referred to Barack Obama as the “black President of the United States” or Drew Gilpin Faust, as the picture above describes, as the “Woman President of Harvard” instead of simply the “President of Harvard”.
Volunteers and volunteer engagement seem to attract a shockingly large number of these qualifiers and an examination of a lot of the practitioner literature is littered with this language. Building on my previous post “The Only Problem With Volunteers Is That They’re People”, we attach the word ‘volunteer’ a lot and it needs to stop.
There’s a pervasive undertone in qualifier language that clearly yet subtly implies ‘less’ and a lack of legitimacy- that’s why it’s called a qualifier. It’s a subtle way of undermining someone’s or something’s validity. Look at job titles for volunteer roles- so many of them have the word volunteer right in there like “Administration Volunteer” or “Volunteer Driver”. What value is added by including the word ‘volunteer’ in that title?
It reminds me of the classic Volunteer Management joke:
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a Volunteer Manager”
“So do you get paid to do that?”
I’m not proposing we all go out and stop using the word ‘volunteer’, nor am I suggesting that we jargon ourselves to death with trendy terms like “knowledge philanthropist”. What I would like to humbly propose is that we really evaluate when and where we add the word ‘volunteer’ to our language and have a conversation about what, if anything, that word adds to our dialogue and more importantly, what mental models it reinforces that may be better left behind.
What I believe we’ll find is that the use of the word ‘volunteer’ more often than not serves to counteract the very philosophies Volunteer Engagement professionals are working hard to achieve, such as inclusion, partnership and valuing volunteers as strategic resources within an organization.
What’s the worst example you’ve heard of a ‘volunteer’ qualifier? How did you address it?