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Growing the Next Generation of Volunteer Leaders

By Kathleen M. Minke

One of the great joys of being NASP president is the opportunity to travel to state association conferences and meet the dedicated volunteers who lead these associations. I have made around a dozen trips (including our regional meetings) and I’ve noticed a fair degree of variation among the states in the average age of the leaders and the meeting attendees. I have been impressed with our older colleagues whose interest in ongoing professional development extends beyond their own retirements, and many of these seasoned leaders continue to contribute expertise to their organizations. But I also was a little surprised (and very pleased) to discover that there are many of our younger colleagues who seek to be involved in the profession as volunteer leaders. And everywhere I’ve been, I’ve met smart, eager students whose enthusiasm is remarkable. I’m not much on trying to analyze trends in a generation by assigning them letters or labels (Gen Y or Millennials), but it appears to me that our young professionals do expect to give back and, to paraphrase Twain, reports of the death of volunteerism may have been exaggerated.

What motivates a young professional to take part in state association leadership? In my home state, half of the Delaware Association of School Psychologists’ board members currently are young professionals (all of whom graduated from my program). I will confess to feeling a tiny bit of pride, hoping that somehow we as faculty have influenced this phenomenon. In a completely nonscientific survey, I asked several of these young leaders what made them decide to become involved in leadership. Of the many ways they could give back to their communities, why was leadership in a professional organization a priority? Their responses were remarkably similar and focused less on why they started (sadly, none mentioned modeling by their professors!) and more on why they stayed. Uniformly, they found the experience professionally and personally fulfilling. They talked about finding a niche that mirrored their own interests, and forging a connection with colleagues that promoted their own skill development and lessened the feeling of isolation that can come by being the only school psychologist responsible for several buildings.

Their description of their experiences nicely mirrored recommendations from those who specialize in leadership development. For example, the HandsOn Network offers the following tips:

  • Encourage your volunteers to take on challenges that will foster their own growth and development. Make it safe for them to make mistakes by treating them as learning experiences.
  • Support initiatives that your volunteers may come up with themselves rather than insisting on your own (to the degree that you can). Volunteers will be inspired to pursue efforts and topics that are of particular interest to them rather than what you feel is best.
  • Recognize individuals frequently for their contributions. Recognition that is low-key, frequent, and personal is generally more meaningful to people than a big, annual event (although doing both is even better).
  • Send volunteers with leadership potential to a training or take them to conferences. Progressive responsibility and improved skills help build leaders (from the handout, Developing Volunteer Leaders, retrieved 10/25/10 from http://www.nationalserviceresources.org/files/GI _DevelopingVolunteerLeaders_2010_HON.pdf)

So how did these young leaders get started? Some good old-fashioned arm-twisting by their fieldbased supervisors was part of it! A more positive frame to put on it is this: They were invited—specifically, personally, and intentionally invited by someone they knew and trusted. And once invited, they found satisfaction in the relationships with colleagues, professional development that helped them do their jobs, and a sense of being part of the solution to problems facing our schools and our profession. I hope that all of you who are currently involved in professional association leadership take an active role in the invitation process. Bring a student or a younger colleague to a meeting. Show them specific ways that they can be of service, ask them for new ideas that suit their existing interests and skills, and thank them often for their efforts. We will all reap the benefits of their work. And those of you who aren’t currently involved at the state or national level, don’t wait to receive one of these invitations. Take a chance and offer to help. In the Membership section of the NASP website, you can find opportunities to participate in the work of the association. Consider volunteering to help at the convention (information is available in the registration section). Call your state association president and ask what help is needed. There are almost always tasks needing to be done. In the words of John Quincy Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” Embrace it! Enjoy the holiday break and may the new year be a happy and productive one.

Kathleen M. Minke, PhD, NCSP, is a professor of education at the University of Delaware.