August 11, 2013
A Traveller’s Tale
There are always stories to tell after travel adventures. I did not go looking for volunteers and volunteering on my recent OE, but the following tale was overheard during a long day on the bus. It was related by a big man with a big voice. We all got to hear what he had to say.
I retired about five years ago. Best thing I ever did. I’ve got my hobbies and I go travelling pretty much every year. I don’t miss the grind of work a jot. Some people say I should be doing some volunteering: no way! I’m not going in to do drudge work to help an organisation save a bit of money. If I am going to volunteer I want to make sure it’s for a mission I believe in and want to help.
Right on, I said to myself. That’s the way most people are getting involved in volunteering these days. After all, volunteering is always about giving time freely and willingly, right?
Hmmm…. Free Will is something philosophers have been debating for centuries. Does free choice really exist alongside all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ learned during our childhood and reinforced throughout a lifetime?
For quite a while now it has been clear that the free will of volunteering can be generated by self-interest. I want some work experience, some credits for my study courses, to get out of the house and enjoy some company, to help me learn about my new community, or to practice speaking English. About the only real freedom is in engaging with an organisation of my own choosing. Even those sentenced to Community Service (mandatory volunteering) are able to select where they will work out their time.
The ethics of Duty, Obligation and Civic Responsibility do not feature in our language so much these days. A recent research publication records the decline over the past two hundred years in the use of words linked to duty and obligation, while words linked to individualism and materialism have increased. This shift in our mind-sets, says the psychologist researcher, reflects the socio-cultural changes effected by urbanisation, universal education and technology. It’s also worth noting how volunteering has become more formalised and structured – and the emergence of professional standards for management practice.
When motivation is a matter of self-interest Free Will can still get exercised in selecting an organisation for volunteer effort – though self-interest carries a responsibility to ensure our expectations match the organisation goals and the available volunteer roles. I would hope recruitment and orientation procedures would help ensure an appropriate match between organisation and aspiring volunteer. And if the organisation and the volunteer programme offer the best possible experience then further volunteering is encouraged.
So let us not get precious about definitions and the different paths that bring people to volunteering. Language changes, and the way we think and behave and relate to our environment and in our communities will continue to change over time.