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The professional volunteer: impossible in aid? (And how about the salaried amateur?)

by Michael Keizer on June 27, 2010

'Wooden Firehouse' courtesy of Free Range Stock Photos

Update July 4: Andrew points out a linguistic complication: in English, the adjective professional has a much wider meaning than the noun professional; in other words, one can be a professional without acting professionally. So please, read the article with this in mind and replace ‘a professional’ with ‘acting professionally’ where appropriate.

The ever-excellent Linda Raftree recently wrote an article about amateurs, professionals, innovations and smart aid. In it, she sketches in its extreme form two diametrically opposed views of volunteers and professionals: on the one extreme, volunteers are seen as well-meaning but utterly useless do-gooders who potentially do more damage than good, while on the other hand professionals are seen as useless ballast who are in no way capable of doing what they claim to do and who weigh down agile, smart new initiatives from volunteers.

I think that one of the big issues here is the conflation of amateur and volunteer, and of salaried aid worker and professional. In my view, being a volunteer does not automatically imply that you are an amateur, and some of the salaried aid workers out there are not professionals at all. I would say that there probably is a correlation between your contract status and your position on the amateur-professional continuum (although I have no evidence to back that up – just personal observation), but there is definitely no hard-wired link.

So what makes a professional?

When I worked in a large international consultants’ firm, I used to teach introductory courses that included professional ethics to first-year associates. We would usually spend some time on working out what exactly makes a professional, what we understand by ethics, and what is the importance of ethics for professionals. Over the years, there was a remarkable constant set of traits that almost always were seen as central to being a professional.

I post two lists here: one with traits that were almost universally recognised as being essential to being a professional, and one with some statements that would usually lead to some more disagreement and discussion. Both sections are tailored towards professionals in other settings than aid work, but read ‘users’ instead of ‘clients’ and they are totally applicable to our sector too. I copy and paste it here unchanged (with many thanks to the participants of my courses who have helped to construct this list), because some of the wording might lead to interesting discussions.

Elements of professionalism

True professionals:
• are competent;
• know their limitations, and are willing to push these back continuously;
• are discreet and respect confidentiality;
• stick to promises and agreements;
• are loyal and honest towards clients and colleagues;
• practice what they preach;
• are strongly motivated by ethical values;
• are rational and objective, but respect their partners’ emotions;
• are creative;
• are independent, but communicate well;
• are willing to be held accountable and to explain their actions, and report unasked;
• are willing to share knowledge and skills;
• foster professionalism in others, wherever they find it.

Some statements for discussion about professionalism

• “True professionals never declare their professionalism; they demonstrate it”.
• “Amateurs don’t have any room for true professionals, especially in recognised professions”.
• “Volunteers are often more professional than the professionals”.
• “True professionals respect their partners’ time schedule”.
• “True professionals strive to minimize bureaucracy, but respect the rules; they try to change (and minimize) the rules, not to ignore them”.
• “Anyone can be a professional. In fact, most professionals work outside recognized professions”.
• “A bureaucrat can’t be a professional”.
• “A true professional is almost always a good teacher and mentor. However, not every good teacher is also a true professional”.

Are you a professional?

It should be noted here that one can be a professional in one role but a rank amateur in another. I think (hope?) that I am a professional aid and global health logistician, but I am aware that as a musician I am as amateur as they go. I think that most salaried aid workers are professionals in their jobs, but a sizeable minority isn’t. I also think that many volunteers are professionals, although many aren’t; but that being a short-term volunteer will almost always mean that you cannot be a professional in that role.

So what do you think? Do you think that these lists are a fair representation of what is a professional? Are you an aid professional? Do you think that volunteers can be aid professionals, or that the reality is that they hardly ever are? I am looking forward to your comments.

Update November 5: This article was was meant to put a bit of pepper in a long and still ongoing debate about the role of professionals and amateurs in aid; I am happy to say that this discussion has really taken off since then (although I probably have to admit that some posts from people like Nick Kristof, with a slightly wider audience than I have, probably have contributed more to that than this post). Good Intentions prepared a link list and a synthesis of the consensus up to now. Recommended reading.

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