Mutual Learning: The Hallmark of a Strong Professional-Volunteer Relationship

Professionals in non-profit organizations have a variety of relationships that they develop and maintain in the context of their work. This includes their working relationships with colleagues and clients in their own organization, as well as with those people they meet from other agencies and in the community in general. One of the most challenging of all is the connection between the professionals in the organization and the volunteer leadership who serve on the board of directors and the various committees.

For the CEO of the non-profit the relationships with the chairperson of the board, the chairpersons of committees, the members of committees, and other volunteer leaders are crucial to the success of the position. Often the professional feels the need to know a great deal about almost all the subjects that are discussed and to be in the position of providing information, knowledge and expertise about many different subjects that are topics of discussion during committee and board meetings. What does it mean when the professional heading an organization does not have the information or when the volunteer leadership is more knowledgeable about a particular area of interest to the board of directors, in general, or one of the committees, in particular?

One of the most interesting aspects of working in the non-profit sector and with voluntary organizations has been the dynamic of “mutual learning” that is evident in committee meetings, conversations among professionals and volunteer leaders, and among the professional staff of the organization. When the mission of the organization provides a focus on specific subjects, issues, challenges, and facing the community it is an opportunity for people to learn together and to learn from one another. Although there is sometimes an internal pressure felt by professionals to know “everything” it is not a requirement of any paid position in non-profit organizations.

Mutual learning means several things in the ongoing life of those involved in voluntary organizations. People learn from each other and they share their knowledge and expertise. Although there is always a tendency to be competitive in human relationships, one of the key missions of any non-profit organization is improving the lives of others and enhancing people’s quality of life. If competition does play a role, then it should have an impact on how the organization and its leadership are competing against themselves to be the best they can be. The focus is how professional and volunteer leadership become better educated and informed not only about the agency’s services but also about the specific problems that are addressed by the agency’s programs.

The CEO and the professional staff are the “guides” for the volunteer leaders to learn about the organization’s programs and the approaches that are developed to provide the highest quality services as a way of implementing the organization’s mission. Simultaneously, often volunteer leaders have expertise that is used to strengthen the agency’ s standing in the community and to use social networking to spread the word of the high quality of the agency’s services to the community. In order for the leadership to be successful in publicizing the organization’s mission there needs to be shared learning between the professionals and lay leaders.

Much of the learning takes place informally as people are working together while some of the content needs to be formal in both the structure and function. In an informal situation the learning transpires in shared work situations where professional and volunteer leaders are participating in performing common tasks. When the professionals are confident members of the staff then they are more open to receiving information and joining shared learning “forums” where the board becomes a place of learning for everyone involved.

Of course, during board meetings and committee meetings, continual learning takes place among the members and the professional staff. Staff members should welcome the involvement of people with an expertise and knowledge in a variety of subjects and skills that are broader and deeper. As the working relationship is strengthened they will feel freer to learn from each other.

In time professionals will learn that the well educated and involved volunteer leader is an asset to the organization. Egos have to be left at the door and the organizational culture has to both reflect and reinforce shared learning. If for some reason this does not happen then an effort has to be made to explore the difficulties people are having in learning from each other.

When an atmosphere is developed whereby people are sharing various bodies of knowledge with each other and learning from each other, then this strengthens the entire organization. Once the commitment to this kind of organizational culture is implemented it works to develop a core of people who can be called upon to teach and learn from each other. The organization will not be the same and certainly the participating professionals and lay leaders will want to deepen their relationships. Mutual learning is good no only for the skill development but also for the individual’s standing in the community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.