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

by Michael Keizer on June 27, 2010

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.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura June 27, 2010 at 10:17 pm

Good points – at the end of the day, the way you describe ‘a professional’ is about a basic set of standards, values and competencies. At least in aid work, my line of work, but probably most other professions as well, those standards you list can apply to both those who are paid to do the work and those who volunteer. If you are not motivated by money, for example, there is no reason why a volunteer might not do as good of a job as any person who is paid. It boils down to the individual and what drives each person to do un/paid aid work.


Michael Keizer June 27, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Thanks, Laura, you have just encapsulated two pages of my blathering into one nice, terse paragraph. I think we can safely conclude that I am an amateur when it comes to blog writing.


John June 29, 2010 at 8:56 am

I think everything you said in the post is true. I agree 100%. I don’t really want to care about any of this, but I do and that is a problem.

Like you, I have seen these “lists” before and have made a few myself. So I’ll go on about that a little, if you’ll indulge me for a moment.

Professionalism is a subjective measure of behavior. Competence and creativity need to come off the above “Elements of Professionalism” list to make it one of many possible variations on a theme. Competence is a measure of results and creativity is a type of competence. With that out of the way; these lists circulate around inside companies along with other lists like “Codes of Conduct” (Don’t steal stuff) and “Dress Codes” (Don’t ware shorts to a customer meeting). Companies like to make lists. Consulting companies really like to make lists and often have lists of “Soft Skills” (how to tell your customer they are dumb as a rock without being shown the door and losing the $5M contract) and send new hires to “Boot Camp” (how to be drunk around the boss and not get fired) to learn all about them.

As an aside, there was a time when it was very trendy to try to measure behaviors during the hiring process through a series of psychological tests. Evaluating the results as indicators of future success. As it turns out, it’s crap. Credit scores are a better measure of future success (and honesty), not that I am advocating such an intrusive thing. Thankfully, past success is “the best” measure of likely future success and it costs a lot less to evaluate. Furthermore, the context in which past successes were accomplished is almost irrelevant as a predictor of future success. Past success in any area (or degree program) plus a set of core skills equals a good hire. Surprising and maybe a bit unsettling, but true.

Companies also care about “culture”. Some care so much about it it starts to look like dogma. The gospel according to Apple/Toyota/Accenture. So the lists from above find themselves on someones desk during the annual employee performance review process. At the bottom (or top) of some list you will likely see:

– Knows the scope of responsibilities and the limits of authority.
– Understands how professional conduct contributes to the ability to advance within the organization.
– Understands what the process is for improving “underperformance” and the circumstances that lead to termination.

Everyone feels fully vested in the process and after you successfully (or not) talk your way through the soft, squishy, feels good stuff and that gets blended in with, um…, HOW WELL YOU DID YOUR JOB, you find out if you get to come to work on Monday and how much you now make. None of the soft stuff adds to the employees ability to be in control of their destiny. It’s an illusion.

So, it’s more crap. So much so there are words used to get around this crap. Management Challenge. The consistent over performer who is kind of a pain in the butt. They don’t care to much about their co-workers or mentoring. If a co-worker messes up they just come in over the weekend and fix it all. They don’t measure themselves based on some list, and have a hard time understanding why anyone would even try. Results count, the rest is just frosting. These people are successful. You want them on your team, even if you whine about them constantly. Of course lots of folks are successful without being a management challenge, the primary difference being you would never give a management challenge a bunch of direct reports or sit them down with the CEO of your biggest customer, that would be dumb.

It’s simple: If someone does their job well, give them a raise. Otherwise, fire them. In the same vain: if they are smart, hire them. If they are smart and experienced, hire them fast before someone else does. Volunteer or paid employee hardly matters, volunteers (some call them interns, some call them grad students) should be engaged in the same way as paid employees.

Ok, list rant over on account of time and the comment is longer than the post, my bad.

So what’s the problem? I don’t care about a youth group with a box of sneakers heading to Haiti to “broaden their horizons” and “open their eyes”, it just doesn’t matter. Qualitatively, yea, it’s really dumb. Quantitatively, they aren’t really much of a danger, certainly not the walking disaster zone some would make them out to be. Same for Jason/T-Shirt guy. He’s a jerk and his ideas are horrible. But beyond the entertainment value in giving him a hard time, he is ignorable.

I do, unfortunately, care about the Churchies and their Adoption/Human Trafficking racket. I wish I could ignore them, but because the “International Community” has FAILED to protect the weak, vulnerable and desperate in Haiti, these morons are able to do real harm. That should make lots of “professionals” uncomfortable or insecure, right? I’m not sure it does and that worries me.

I cared about success when I was a SVP in a very large professional consulting practice and I care even more about it in the humanitarian aid business. What is more important? Getting the inventory control system for a Korean ship builder out on time and on budget or not botching up a multimillion dollar aid program that intends to improve (Improved being defined by the recipients. I hope that doest need to be restated) the lives of millions. Process, methods and the latest theories are great if they give measurable results. Otherwise, they just add pounds to the annual report. You screw up the inventory control project you get fired. End of story. You screw up a multimillion dollar development program, you can redefine success, claim “externalities”, and ask for more money. That worries me. It makes me feel insecure. I need to do my job better and if I don’t I should be fired. That’s a professional outcome.


Michael Keizer June 29, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Wow, that is quite a lot to digest. Just a couple of short points.

  • Let me say upfront that I agree with much of what you say, especially that what counts in the end are results. I do think, though, that it needs stressing that we are talking about results as seen by the recipients, not necessarily the boss. I know you said that, but I’m afraid it gets a bit lost in a very long response.
  • Having said that, I think that professionalism as described above is a way, and possibly the most effective and efficient way, to get those results. In other words: professionalism is not and end by itself, but a means to an end. (This, by the way, is implied in the very first point on the list: being competent, which basically means: get the things done that you are supposed to. As you say yourself: “Competence is a measure of results”.)
  • I would go one step further, and say that without professionalism as described here, you are a lot less likely to get results. If you don’t know your limitations; if you are a unimaginative drone who just copies what has always been done in the way it has always been done; if you can’t be depended upon; you are less likely to get things done than if you do. It’s not impossible to be successful (again, as measured by results for the recipients) while being totally unprofessional — but I would say that the professionals I know are, on the whole, much better in getting those results.
  • “None of the soft stuff adds to the employees ability to be in control of their destiny. It’s an illusion.” It’s only an illusion if you believe that it will help you to be in control. It doesn’t, you need other, addtional skills for that. So I agree that this does not add to any control, but I disagree with your implied suggestion that it is supposed to.
  • “You screw up a multimillion dollar development program, you can redefine success, claim “externalities”, and ask for more money. That worries me. It makes me feel insecure. I need to do my job better and if I don’t I should be fired. That’s a professional outcome.” And there, we agree absolutely 100%. The culture of nice that exists in too many aid organisations has done untold damage, and is, in my view, highly unprofessional.


J. July 1, 2010 at 6:00 am

Hey Michael – good post, good thinking, good discussion.

Two short points:

1) Part of the problem is in the language. “Volunteer”, to many, connotes an unqualified amateur, someone who’s primary contribution is that they cost nothing in terms of salary. We need a new term.

2) Where one falls on the issue of volunteers (or whatever term one uses) ultimately boils down to how one views the field of humanitarian aid in general. I happen to see it as a field that requires a high degree of specialized knowlege and skill; a field that requires individuals and organizations alike to deal with very complex and difficult ethical, moral and technical issues. To put it bluntly, we are dealing with people’s lives. If you accept this, then in my view the conversation about “volunteers” and “salaried amateurs” alike, become irrelevant very quickly. On the other hand, for those to whom humanitarian is not as deep or complex as what I describe, the volunteers conversation remains viable.


Michael Keizer July 1, 2010 at 8:32 am

1) Yes, totally agree on that one. Any suggestions?

2) I would agree that, as a whole, the field is complex and needs people with a high degree of knowledge and specific skills. However, I also think that some specific aspects are really not that specific. To give one example from my recent direct experience: a large NGO needed a group of their car mechanics trained in some of the intricacies of a new model vehicle. A Japanese volunteer car mechanic organised and ran the training with input from a local senior mechanic about specific local issues. The training was a huge success, mainly because of the drive, dedication, and professionalism (in my sense of the word) of the volunteer.


Andrew July 3, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Interesting post and follow up comments.

To add to the discussion I think the lines you drew between being a professional and behaving professionally were a little fuzzy in your post. In my mind they have two concretely separate meanings – being a professional implies that that person has expert or advanced knowledge in a subject (or at least they should) and is being paid for their work. This definition doesn’t just apply to volunteers. For example, a photographer will always be considered amateur no matter his technical ability if he is not paid for his work. Same is true in sports. Being a professional means they are getting paid, but it does not always mean they should be (which is what I think you were getting at).

In this post I think you addressed the concept of behaving professionally and that is should apply to professionals and volunteers alike. I completely agree. The points you brought up are all highly desirable and should not relate to whether the person is getting paid or not. Behaving professionally is a character trait that every one of us should strive for.

I blame the English language for confusing two very different terms. =)

Anyway, I enjoyed reading this post and included it in our weekly blog roundup. You can see that post here. Feel free to share this within your social community.



Michael Keizer July 4, 2010 at 8:37 am

Thanks, Andrew! As somebody who learnt English as a third language, this is the sort of thing that trips one up… Just to make sure, I checked in two dictionaries (the OED and the Macquarie dictionary – yes, I am in Australia) and it seems you are right: the adjective professional has a much wider meaning than the noun professional, so conceivably an professional could be unprofessional. So not only do we need another word for volunteer, as J. suggested above, but also for somebody who acts professionally.

And still people say that English is an easy language.


Michael Keizer July 4, 2010 at 9:04 am

Thinking a bit more about this: I am astonished that none of the hundreds of people with whom I have talked about this over the years (many of which were native English speakers) have ever brought this up. Just goes to show that even for native speakers there is still a lot of unknown nooks and crannies in the English language.


Donna Cregg October 20, 2010 at 8:27 am

Whether they’re professionals or not, paid or not, all aide workers deserve our praise for all the help they provide to those in need. I saw Attack on Darfur at the NYIFF and it included a very eye opening depiction of aide workers and journalists in the Sudan. I’m definitely going to get the dvd when it comes out later this month. I hope everyone sees this film and becomes inspired to get involved with aide organizations. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pQqoVhb7m4


Michael Keizer October 20, 2010 at 8:36 am

I haven’t seen Attack on Darfur itself, but I hope the trailer is not an indication of what the movie is like. If it is, it is hardly an accurate depiction of what aid workers do.


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