“From The Top Down” Review

From the Top Down cover

The subtitle to this book by Susan J. Ellis is “The Executive Role in Successful Volunteer Involvement,” and that’s true as far as it goes. For executives in businesses or organizations in which volunteers make up only a small fraction of the total workforce, this book is an excellent resource. Ellis devotes full chapters to budgeting for volunteers, the impact and financial value of volunteer contributions, understanding the volunteer/employee relationship (especially how it can go wrong and what to do to prevent or fix it), legal issues, and managing volunteers at all levels, from those performing basic tasks to those supporting the executive suite. For these topics and others, the book provides a wealth of information and keen insights, including how to address and change dismissive or fearful attitudes among employees about the volunteers who are working with them.

However, there’s a whole range of other organizations the book barely even mentions: those in which volunteers make up the vast majority of the workforce and the paid staff represents the minority. These organizations include veteran or military-affiliated groups, medical condition or other single-issue advocacy groups, and many others. They have chapters or similar teams spread across a wide area, such as the entire U.S., supported by a small organizational headquarters, often located in a state or national capital. An entire, separate book could be devoted to these groups.

For these organizations, some of Ellis’s recommendations, such as having a paid “director of volunteer involvement,” are less relevant or even inappropriate, while others have to be turned on their heads. Some, however, remain highly relevant, such as ensuring that the organization’s financial staff understands how the money spent on “field” operations is leveraged by the chapters, sometimes by orders of magnitude, to accomplish the organization’s goals and missions.

This third edition was published ten years ago, so Ellis could see only dimly the effects that social media and the wide adoption of the internet were going to have, but I have to give her credit for anticipating as much as she did. This alone argues for an updated edition, but none is available, as far as I can tell.

My final complaint is that the book is available only in print and PDF formats and the PDF version is so tightly protected that it isn’t possible to even highlight or copy and paste text into a separate document. At the least, the book should be re-released in e-reader-friendly formats, and all electronic versions should permit highlighting and copying and pasting.

This book has received an average four-star rating, and for executives in the kinds of organizations it’s appropriate for, that rating or higher is fully deserved. My personal rating is lower because it does not target the kinds of organizations I’m involved in. For these groups, a lot of translating and adjusting is required to make the book’s recommendations relevant, if they’re relevant at all.

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