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What Does It Mean to Be an IEEE Volunteer?

This is my last President’s Page, and I have picked a very important topic as the theme: Volunteerism. I have worked with Sergio (past ComSoc President and current Division 3 Director) over many years and have tremendous respect for his opinions; hence, I have invited him to co-write this page with me.

I found an appropriate definition of volunteerism in the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences:

“Volunteerism is a form of helping in which people actively seek out opportunities to assist others in need, make considerable and continuing commitments to provide assistance, and sustain these commitments over extended periods of time, often at considerable personal cost.”

Volunteers in IEEE share many characteristics with volunteering in any non-profit organization, like the will to contribute to a cause in which they believe, to learn new skills, to fulfill social expectations, and to regain a sense of ownership and control that they cannot find in their living environment. There are, however, peculiar aspects to it. In most cases, the majority of volunteers are retired people who decide to offer part of their time to help non-profit organizations in the fulfillment of their humanitarian scopes. Instead, many IEEE volunteers are still active in their day-to-day jobs, so reconciling the volunteering needs with their busy schedules can be a difficult endeavor, and requires that IEEE leaders choose very carefully the kind of tasks to sign up for in terms of compatibility and effectiveness.

It is important to distinguish the IEEE members (around 400,000 of them) from the “active” members (volunteers, more than one order of magnitude less numerous), who volunteer to play some roles in the complex IEEE organization whose mission is to foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.

Perhaps the most important responsibility of a volunteer of the ComSoc Board is to fulfill his/her fiduciary responsibility. The following is an appropriate definition from BoardSource:

“Board members act as trustees of the organization’s assets and must exercise due diligence and oversight to ensure that the organization is well-managed and that its financial situation remains sound. Fiduciary duty requires board members to stay objective, unselfish, responsible, honest, trustworthy, and efficient. Board members, as stewards of public trust, must always act for the good of the organization, rather than for the benefit of themselves. They need to exercise reasonable care in all decision making, without placing the organization under unnecessary risk.”

While the above criteria for a volunteer is like “motherhood and apple pie” (who would object to that!), in reality it is challenging to carry out, what with conflicting interests among friends, personal aspirations, and contending opposing options that need judgment calls. Often one is faced with hard choices, and all one can do is to follow their common sense and in some rare cases their ethical metrics. It is imperative to regulate one’s conduct in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment, association, or obligation. While there are examples of misbehavior among IEEE volunteers, such as exploiting a favorable position (conference technical program chair, journal editor, etc.) to fulfill his/her own interest, the vast majority of IEEE volunteers offer their skills and time to improve the members’ experience, and do so driven by the values of diversity and inclusiveness that should characterize a worldwide organization like IEEE. It is a task that requires patience, dedication, altruism, openness, careful organization of one’s time, putting aside one’s interests for the common good.

In volunteer-based entities, a well-defined relationship between staff and volunteers is crucial for success, much more so for a very large organization like IEEE, which counts around 1000 full-time staff and 400,000 members. Work assigned to volunteers, while exploiting their experience, skills, and inclinations, must consider that their time is limited and does not spread uniformly, so tasks with firm deadlines requiring continuous dedication may not be suitable for them. Most IEEE activities/projects are rather complex, and require the joint participation of staff and volunteers. Mutual respect, clear definition of everyone’s role, and periodic interactions to check project advancement are fundamental to the success of all initiatives. Ergo, IEEE staff and volunteers are true partners in every sense of the word without one taking a subservient role to the other. The staff often is the memory and the constant partner carrying out long-duration projects to conclusions. They need to understand, and be included in, the discussion of the strategic and tactical goals of the Society. Volunteers need to understand the constraints and the policy and procedures of operations and management. Frequent dialogue thus is required between the two groups, but with time constraints, especially for the volunteers, this is sometimes under-invested, leading to inefficiencies or even inappropriate actions.

One important aspect of running a forefront organization such as ComSoc is managing renewal in a fast-pace changing environment. The organization must continuously adapt. Without renewal, the society cannot maintain excellence and its leadership position. A management style that was effective under one set of conditions may become progressively less effective under changing circumstances. Infusion of new blood and new ideas is critical to the vitality of the society. Whereas a certain amount of experience is needed to perform many functions, anyone with too many years of services in the same type of job without limit will become stale and unimaginative. Thus, service term limits and a process to bring in new ideas must be consciously applied by the Society to adapt to the environment and stay vibrant. Diversity of views is important in times of change. The management must have diversity in gender, geographic extent, and technical background to construct and foster a common agenda with heterogeneous support. Managing change is not easy for a big organization. We must reach out to compare notes with other societies and councils, and also borrow from the business world their experience and practices.

Finally, volunteerism is a complex endeavor. Dedication and self-sacrifice are required. Hopefully, we all will find satisfaction in the fruit of our work. Sergio found this following quote that exemplifies what it feels to be a volunteer:

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” (Rabindranath Tagore)

Thanks, and it has been a pleasure to serve you all.