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Things I notice: volunteer thinking in the IET and IEEE

A recent IET volunteers’ conference gave me hope. The contrast to similar IEEE events is regrettable but undeniable.

It’s a terrible comparison to make, but I found it far too tempting. I was ambivalent about the IET Asia-Pacific Communities Volunteers’ Conference (AP-CVC), not because of the IET, but because years on years as an IEEE volunteer had tarred me. Would attitudes in the IET be any different?

I was pleasantly surprised. The differences in volunteer culture are subtle, but to me they made a huge difference.

It goes without saying, but to be clear: Opinions are my own, and not representative of those of the IET, IEEE, any institution or any sub-unit thereof.  I also give more disclaimers at the end of the post.

1. Services, not statistics.
I got sick of hearing about membership statistics in the IEEE after a while. The IET AP-CVC barely mentioned them. The emphasis was on what the IET does: professional registration, MyCommunity (an online networking tool), examples of student activities.

Marketing is rightly recognised as important in both institutions, but here it focussed on values, not volume. The myriad of IEEE benefits could often feel disjointed to me. The IET’s pitches had a clearer valued proposition.

2. Addressing the root cause.
The emphasis on services meant that when they spoke about member recruitment and retention, they would say things like “get the product right” (with details, of course) rather than “send people who haven’t renewed by November an e-mail to ask them to”.

This epitomised a broader tendency I notice: where things aren’t perfect, attack the root cause, rather than any plausible initiative.

3. Senior volunteers support junior volunteers.
I very rarely felt this way in the IEEE; on the contrary, I often felt like a minion of a senior volunteer, doing their pet projects for them. In contrast, the Asia-Pacific committee chair was unequivocal in his first message: “We’re here to help.” It was a theme repeated by senior volunteers and staff. They saw their roles as to support and guide local committees, not instruct them.

4. Tell things like they are.
Most noticeably, there was a brutal honesty about the conference. The diagnoses made by speakers were astute, acknowledging shortcomings, and by that I mean actual shortcomings, like a “gap in [service] provision for [a group]”—not just “the statistics show some weaknesses”.

I really appreciated that. Why? Because the truth is that neither institution is in good shape. To be clear, they both do some excellent work in certain activities (IEEE in academic publishing, IET in professional registration). But far too many engineers are unconvinced they will get something from membership. Even I don’t know how to convince people, and I’ve thought about it a lot.

A bad comparison (i.e. more disclaimers)
I said it’s a terrible comparison to make. The first reason is that the IEEE and the IET are not (or at least should not be!) rival organisations. There’s simply no sense in having competing professional institutions. And I still think the IEEE is a worthwhile organisation. It’s just the differences in volunteer thinking that were too hard to ignore.

The second reason the comparison is imperfect is because “Asia-Pacific” in the IET, unlike the IEEE, doesn’t cover South Asia. I’m not personally convinced the differences are attributable to that, but it is an uncontrolled variable, so to speak, so read into it what you will.

The obvious final reason to take all this with a grain of salt is that it’s based on a sample size of one (for the IET, three for the IEEE). Indeed, some people I talked to afterwards seemed to imply that the culture at this conference wasn’t the same as similar conferences in the past.

So in the grand scheme of things, this shouldn’t count for much. But I’ve been on a personal mission to discover exactly how my belief that a professional institution can be helpful to its profession can be realised. It’s been five years so far; for the first time, I really feel like I’m a step closer.

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