The Chain-saw Certificate

By Kirstie McAllum

The prevalence of bureaucratic obstacles that prevent volunteers doing what they came to do was one of the key motivations that pushed me to research changes in nonprofit organizing and volunteering in the first place. Nonetheless, demands for “expert volunteers” who complete various training modules still surprise me.

A recent example from a family member in New Zealand who had been volunteering for an environmental organization for several years was a case in point. Let’s call him Stephen. Stephen protects native flora and fauna for New Zealanders to enjoy by trapping predators and by clearing branches and scrub that have fallen onto walking tracks in mountainous and forested regions. Clearing paths often requires the use of a chainsaw. The organization insisted that in order to comply with occupational health and safety regulations, all volunteers had to obtain a certificate to show that they knew how to wield a chainsaw safely. Stephen didn’t see the need for a certificate: he’s used a chainsaw for years – at home, at work, and even more surprisingly for the very same organization that now wants him to become certified.

However, since it was impossible to continue volunteering for the environmental organization without the certificate, he felt obliged to enrol in the four-day training program together with two other participants. He didn’t enjoy the course. There were too many rules and regulations that were going to make volunteering difficult if not impossible: rules about passengers transported to the site in a van, regulations about whistles to be used if the person chain-sawing were to slip and hit his/her head…

At the end of the course, the instructor gave out a pen and paper test to check that the participants’ chainsaw knowledge was up to scratch. Stephen answered the numerous questions in a way that he felt combined concision and precision, and so he was dumbfounded when the instructor informed him that all three of them had failed the exam. He had failed because his answers did not use the same wording as the manual that had been given out with other course materials at the beginning of the course. The now very dissatisfied participants contacted the National Office to complain about how the procedures had stopped them from staying involved with a leisure activity that they all enjoyed.

A few months later, a manager from National Office called back and conducted a thorough, forty-five minute long oral examination by phone, interjecting negatively when Stephen couldn’t remember some specific details. Toward the end of the exam, the manager asked for a list of twelve possible safety hazards to watch out for when chain-sawing. Stephen rattled off eight potential dangers quickly but petered out once he got to nine or ten.

He added in half jokingly that it would be very important to watch out for herds of wild deer and even wild pigs, since they could cause an absolute ruckus. Once he had convinced the manager that this did indeed happen in the high country, he noted that her rather cold tone changed to sincere interest and he heard her pen scratching on her note pad at the other end of the line.
Stephen has stopped going to the organization’s meetings, as they only argue about which regulations matter and how they might be implemented.

Some references on bureaucratization and professionalization of volunteering:

Ganesh, S., &McAllum, K. (2012). Volunteering and professionalization: Trends in tension?. Management Communication Quarterly, 26(1), 152-158.

McAllum, K. (2018). Volunteers as Boundary Workers: Negotiating Tensions Between Volunteerism and Professionalism in Nonprofit Organizations. Management Communication Quarterly, 00(0), 1‑31.

Kreutzer, K., & Jäger, U. (2011). Volunteering Versus Managerialism: Conflict Over Organizational Identity in Voluntary Associations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 40(4), 634‑661.