September 15, 2013
When is a Volunteer Not a Volunteer?
An excerpt from a NFP newsletter dropped into my inbox recently. The headline read We are not Volunteers. The author preferred the term unpaid appointees on the basis that such people were ‘nominated’ by community organisations, rather than ‘putting up their hands’ to volunteer. In all other respects these unpaid appointees followed standard volunteer programme practices in being interviewed, attending a training programme and orientation. On completion of all this they were gazetted and sworn in to undertake their roles as Justices of the Peace. That was the bit that put them beyond being called volunteers.
Oh dear – here we go again on the definitions and principles of volunteering.
Are volunteers for emergency services, for surf life-saving and fisheries protection to be deemed a different category from JPs?
What about the work-for-the-dole programmes, and community sentencing? That’s ‘compulsory’ work for nothing, people say, not volunteering!
When I give my time and accept tickets for a concert in return is that volunteering, or incentivised something? Time-Banking raises another curly question: for all its popularity it’s more about exchanging services, a trading arrangement, isn’t it?
Then there’s the business of ‘informal volunteering’, being a family care giver for aged or disabled people, or being a good neighbour. This sort of volunteering simply goes under the radar, uncounted and unrecognised. But it is suggested that foster care, which is paid, could be termed volunteering under a ‘moral contract’.
And even if organisations involved in advocacy and activism are not eligible for charitable status, their workforce embodies significant volunteer commitment.
Some of these instances were debated in a panel discussion on the scope and definition of volunteering at the recent Australian National Conference on Volunteering. Opinions diverged of course, but there was a point of agreement on the way forward:
Overcoming the undervaluing of volunteering is the outstanding challenge
This undervaluing of volunteering is evident in both NFP and Government sectors, said the CEO of Volunteering South Australia/Northern Territory. Recent research in New Zealand drew similar conclusions. It does not take much to see the flow-on effect in low respect and appreciation for the work of managers of volunteers.
So debate and discussion on what constitutes volunteering is a very big red herring. The real issue here is finding a voice that speaks out about the value of volunteering, and I don’t mean in economic terms. Volunteering is a force to be reckoned with, and we owe it to volunteers and our communities to demonstrate why and how.
The collective “We” includes organisations and their leaders, the movers and shakers in our communities, and managers of volunteers. By creating alliances and developing collaboration we will find a unified voice, telling the story of volunteers and volunteering like it is.
There’s encouragement to be found in the latest Thoughtful Thursdays posting. Susan Ellis acknowledges the busyness of managers of volunteers and reviews some reasons why we do not speak out. The real challenge is to find ways to present volunteering as a vital part of civil society, within organisations as well as in the wider community.