Marlene Wilson

Headshot of Marlene

(Bio Sources:  “Remembering Arlene” article by Jackie Norris.   Chapter in her Visionary Leadership book with bio & reflections from Betty Stallings, Jane Justis, & Susan Ellis)

Marlene Wilson’s basic philosophy about volunteerism is summed up in these few words (for which she was quoted by President George H. Bush during National Volunteer Week in 1991):

“Caring must strengthen into commitment and commitment into action.”

After college, Marlene worked for a yar at a psychiatric hospital and then in human resources management for six years.  She then found her passion, applying business management principles to the field of volunteerism in all sectors, including the church.  In 1968 the helped to create the Volunteer and Information Center of Boulder County, Colorado – the first such center in the state.  She served as its first executive director, leading it to become a national model for developing volunteer centers across the U.S. 

In the early 1970’s Marlene began traveling beyond Colorado to do training in volunteer management.  Quickly becoming well-known, she presented upwards of 200 workshops and keynote speeches a year and led the way for all the other authors, consultants and trainers in the field.  With a unique and refreshing perspective she shared her vision and wisdom on such topics as creativity, influence, marketing, leadership, time management burnout, organizational climate, motivation and change – as well as all of the management and leadership skills needed to effectively lead volunteer programs. 

A true pioneer, Marlene was the first to take an interdisciplinary approach to volunteer management, including basic principles of psychology, communications and business administration.  In 1976 she self-published The Effective Management of Volunteer Programs, at a time when no publishing house was willing to take a chance on it!  The book stood alone for over a decade as the only comprehensive guide to the principles of engaging volunteers in agencies, ultimately selling over 150,000 copies. 

Similarly, Marlene was a trailblazer in identifying churches and the rest of the faith community as the “sleeping giant” of volunteerism.  Her 1983 book, How to Mobilize Church Volunteers was the first work to apply volunteer management principles to the special needs of faith-based institutions and became the sentinel guide for directors of lay ministry everywhere.  Throughout her life she continued to pursue a mission to strengthen how congregations work together, both to serve one another and to address social concerns.

One of Marlene’s greatest gifts to the field was the creation of the Volunteer Management Certificate program through the University of Colorado in 1972 – the first of its kind.  Within a few years it became known as the place to come for a great education and to have one’s passion rekindled.  She recruited outstanding trainers and consultants in the field to serve as faculty and attracted attendees from all over the US and Canada.  During the program’s 25 years, hundreds of people spoke of how their participation had been a life-changing experience.

Marlene’s consulting and publishing firm, Volunteer Management Associates, continued to teach, inspire and advocate for leaders of volunteer engagement for over 30 years.  She made countless videos and travelled the world as a speaker, sharing her passion, knowledge and compassion with thousands.  She received an Honorary doctorate of divinity from Wartburg College and received countless awards and accolades for her work.  As a final legacy, 16 of her most popular presentations were published in Visionary Leadership for Volunteer Programs in 2008.  Readers of this timeless volume will experience how Marlene moves from the hows to the whys of volunteer engagement.  Her words urge all who lead volunteers to move beyond thinking of themselves as managers to thinking of themselves as leaders—those who develop vision for volunteer programs and impart that vision throughout an organization.